Where Have All the Mentors Gone?
Observations from OSAE Board Director Chris Zimmer, CAE
As a card-carrying member of Generation X, I fit the persona perfectly. Born in 1973, I fall smack into the Gen X birth years of 1965-1980. While I’m flattered that the research from The Balance Careers shows that I and my grew-up-on-grunge compatriots are “independent, resourceful, technologically adept, and flexible,” we are also dog-tired. We are caring for aging parents, angsty teens, spouses, coworkers, pets and houseplants. Many Gen Xers feel like we don’t have any more time or energy to devote to nurturing one more thing. And that is a problem.
In 2017, there were more than 53 million Gen Xers in the workforce, many of whom are keeping anywhere from 25-35 years of professional experience to ourselves. Not because we are greedy or paranoid, but because during our formative years, we adapted to become self-reliant and never really looked back. Generation X was raised in an era of two-income families, rising divorce rates and a faltering economy. We were the very definition of “latch-key kids.”
All of this is to say that while we are busy living our lives and helping manage the lives of those around us, our professional knowledge is staying locked up in our heads rather than being shared with eager Millennials (now the largest generation in the workforce) and those entering the workforce as Gen Z/Generation Next/Post-Millennials.
I can tell you from overwhelming first-hand experience, Millennials and Gen Next are hungry to connect and learn. And not just online or via social media, which is where most of us old folks think they want to collaborate. But in small, intimate professional groups where they can learn from one another and bounce ideas off those with more experience.
In the past, Gen X and Baby Boomer would look to traditional mentors for career guidance, professional wisdom and the passing down of industry knowledge. In fact, I have an amazing mentor. He is respected in the global association community and I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from him. He is generous with his time, knowledge and advice. He is a “mentor” in the true sense of the word.
I cringe to think that these smart, enthusiastic professionals might think of me as a mentor; I still have so much yet to learn. It’s the word “mentor” that trips me up. I’ve never thought of myself as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” A colleague pointed out that the word mentor is “clunky and outdated,” and what we actually seek is hives, tribes or peer groups to learn from and with. Peer groups, no matter the age and experience levels of their members, are enormously helpful and are an easier way to engage than traditional one-on-one mentoring.
There are currently five generations (Greatest, Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and Nexters) in the workforce. Baby Boomers learned at the elbows of their predecessors, and Gen Xers benefitted from guidance from Boomers. But I believe that the classic concept of a ‘mentor’ is changing, and it makes sense to adapt to that rather than sticking to some preconceived notion of mentoring.
There are a host of reasons why taking an interest in one another, and actively sharing information among peers, is beneficial for everyone. In lieu of traditional mentoring, I am giving peer groups a try. Here is why I think you should do the same.
If for no other reason, seek out peer groups to help your own career.
In 2018, I started a small monthly networking group for the Ohio Society of Association Executives (OSAE) with a young professional whom I admire. When questions are raised in the group, I am always happy to share my experience and knowledge, but even more important is for me to help facilitate dialogue. Not only does this help young colleagues avoid the mistakes I’ve made, it helps them see issues from different vantage points.
Over the past year, I have been regularly outnumbered at these meetings by professionals 20 years my junior. These are young people who have enthusiasm, amazing ideas and the energy to get things done. I am certain that during our time together, I have learned more from them than they have from me and my elder colleagues.
After every discussion, I find myself with a page of notes, asking for more information on one topic or another. Being a part of this intergenerational peer group helps me get a grasp on how those younger than myself want to communicate, where their passions lie and how they want to engage. This is incredibly valuable information to a Gen Xer trying to recruit and retain Millennial and Gen Z members. So, who is mentoring who here?
During the past 15 years in association work, I’ve also developed peer mentors whose advice has helped guide, and, even, alter my career path. These are colleagues from different organizations who have different ways of addressing the same issues I face and often fill in my blind spots.
This is the secret sauce of peer circles. Acknowledging that I don’t know everything, that my way is not always best and having the sense to ask those who have differing opinions. Learning to listen thoughtfully to this group of people has been challenging, rewarding and helpful beyond measure. I highly recommend finding yourself a professional tribe and tapping them often.
Peer groups help improve your working environment.
As folks in our 40s and 50s, we have a habit of being quickly cynical about those coming us behind us. Before you descend into “You kids get off my lawn!” territory, hear me out.
Sharing my experience and knowledge through peer groups helps ensure that it lives on and has a good chance of being incorporated into the next generation of my organization. Giving freely of my time and knowledge helps the entire organization adapt quickly; something with which associations have notoriously struggled.
Mentoring through peer groups helps those coming up behind you have an appreciation for why things have developed in the organization as they have. Decisions that may look like failures will have context and help younger colleagues understand how we got to where we are and perhaps use that insight to transition us all into the association of the future.
Become a mentor because it is the right thing to do.
While the general perception of Millennials and Gen Z is that they want to do everything online, I know from experience that this is a myth. Yes, they are leveraging technology to work more efficiently, and they are big fans of flexibility and working remotely. But they are also knowledge-seekers. They want to excel in their chosen careers, and they are hungry for information on how to do that.
Everyone in the workplace now has access to infinitely more information than we did 20 years ago, which can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. More meaningful professional connections help everyone understand what we are reading and trends we are seeing and helps each of us decide both what is applicable and how to apply this new knowledge.
Our younger colleagues are on track to be more tech-savvy, more collaborative and more purpose-driven then we are. What can they teach us? Associations are a natural fit for professionals who are mission-driven and have a sense of service. It is our duty to “pay it forward,” not only to help those coming up but to keep ourselves relevant as well.
I invite every Columbus-based association executive to participate in OSAE’s next Association Coffee Talk at Panera on Bethel Rd. on Friday, March 29 at 8:45 a.m. Take a chance on a peer group. We may not understand everything about our younger colleagues, but it is time we started to try. And it is time we started actively sharing ideas and experience with our young coworkers, as well as accepting the fact that we have much to learn from them, too.