5 Top Tips For Mentoring Younger Colleagues

Being invited to mentor younger colleagues is both an honour and a privilege. An honour, because the implication is that you have something valuable to offer your colleagues. A privilege, because you will almost certainly benefit from the mentoring activity yourself, either through simply developing your skills or from seeing the world of work through someone else’s eyes.

How can you make the most of the mentoring activity for you both? Well, before you start, think about who you are mentoring.

Mentoring colleagues who are not like you

Mentoring those who come from similar backgrounds to ourselves can be a fairly intuitive process.  We are more likely to recognise our younger selves in these colleagues, empathise with their situation, and share experiences that they can relate to. In a modern workforce, we need to develop a more diverse range of thinking and experience built from a more diverse group of people cutting across boundaries of race, age, gender, education, social class, ethnicity, health and disability.

The more different your young colleague is from you, the more you will need to focus on them and listen to their perspectives.  You will need to educate yourself about your potential for unconscious bias.  What might you be saying or suggesting to a younger colleague that would be different if that person were more like your younger self?  If your HR department doesn’t offer specific help on managing your unconscious bias, there are digital programmes you can access, or simply do some reading.  Most importantly, when you are offering advice or support to your colleague, check with them how that will work in their situation.  What assumptions have you made about them when you gave a piece of advice or feedback? 

Focus on your colleague

Giving your colleague some focused attention is probably the most powerful thing you can do.  Half an hour with no other distractions may create more impact than an hour or more of conversation where you are interrupted or distracted.  The staff coffee bar may feel very relaxed, but your younger colleague may feel intimidated in the public space.  In the focused time, listen to what your colleague is saying, have some good questions to help them open up. 

The more you focus on them, the more you will learn about how the world looks to younger colleagues, what they care about, and what is having the most impact on them for better or worse.

Identify one or two areas where you can make a difference

Don’t assume that you will know best how to help your younger colleagues. Explore what they would value, perhaps an introduction to someone you know, or the chance to ‘shadow you’ at a meeting, or feedback on a job application. Choose one or two things that you have time to deliver well, and work with your colleague to create a result for them. 

Manage expectations

It’s quite common for young people to think that a mentor will solve all their problems.  That’s not what mentoring is for. If your colleague brings their problems to you, consider to what level you can get involved.  It may be that you can have a conversation to help them think through their options for action, or it may be that you encourage them to discuss the issue with their line manager.

Have a conversation around the boundaries of your time, the degree to which you can use your influence on their behalf, and the level of input into their working lives you can give.   You might be happy to introduce one person to your colleague, you probably don’t want to devote your time to introducing them to dozens of potential contacts. 

Share relevant experiences

Mentors can help colleagues translate ‘theoretical advice’ into practical action by sharing their experiences.  You will have ‘been there, experienced that, recovered from that’ for a whole range of work situations – whether it’s not getting a hoped-for promotion, or struggling to work well with someone.  In helping your younger colleague see that work does not always go smoothly, that everyone makes mistakes and you have to find ways to work alongside those you may not like very much, you are giving them life-learning that will hold them in good stead for the rest of their careers. Remember to explore your experiences through their perspectives, especially if they have a very different background from you. 

Encourage and challenge

Most importantly, your young colleague should look forward to their sessions with you.  They will probably experience more than enough pressure at work; their time with you will hopefully be energising and motivating.  Whatever is going on in your life or theirs, aim to encourage them.  This isn’t platitudes like ‘you’re doing great’, nice though that can be to hear.  Encouragement will stem from your focus on them as an individual, how you listen to them, take their concerns and questions seriously.  If you respond positively, from the perspective of treating them as a capable person with lots of potential, your young colleague will thrive in your company. 

If all is going well for them, and you have given them some focused attention, you are in a great position to challenge them to go further.  You might want to challenge their thinking on some issue or challenge them to take on further responsibility, even apply for a bigger role. If as a mentor you can help them progress in their career, you have done a great job.

Done well, mentoring is a hugely worthwhile activity for you and your younger colleagues.  The more different they are from you, the more you learn from them, and the richer your experience will be.

About the author: Hedda Bird, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of new book The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your people

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