The continuum of mentoring across generations

This post was written by MMP's Program Manager of the Highland Street Corps Ambassadors of Mentoring, Mallory St. Brice

[caption id="attachment_851" align="alignleft" width="198"] Mallory St. Brice[/caption]

Last week, I participated in a panel at Wheelock College, entitled, “A Change Across Generations: The Changing Nonprofit Landscape.”   The purpose of the panel was to discuss how the modern workplace now consists of three generations of workers (Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y), each with potentially different styles and approaches to leadership, and how this may transform the nonprofit landscape.

I happen to straddle the lines of both Generation X and Generation Y (I was born in 1982, the end of the assumed “X” generation, and I am the child of Baby Boomers), and was able to offer my perspectives as a young nonprofit professional who has served in the sector for almost eight years.  I operate the Highland Street Corps Ambassadors of Mentoring program at MMP, and in addition to expanding high-quality youth mentoring, a secondary goal of the program is to provide meaningful service opportunities and training to individuals in preparation for them to become future nonprofit leaders.

Something I realized from participating in the panel is that there is a major opportunity for nonprofits to capitalize on this fresh level of diversity that exists in our workforce by developing their future leaders through mentoring.  But many organizations maintain they are constrained by budgets, or are fearful of investing in talent that will leave the eventually agency (or are just too busy) and this seems to be a missed opportunity.

As we discussed the potential differences and approaches to work and leadership between the generations, I couldn’t help but think about how this all connects to mentoring.  When we were asked if there are different strengths that each generation brings to the work environment, we all spoke to the many ways knowledge sharing can occur in the workplace for the greater good of the organization. Older, more seasoned employees bring profound knowledge in their respected fields, and possibly historical knowledge of an agency which can be valuable in planning processes.  They also bring a level of depth, knowledge and perspective that one can only gain over time - some may call it wisdom.  They are usually able to think more critically and on both a macro and micro level.

Recent college grads bring new energy and perspectives, and especially during these fiscally dismal times, they can help to re-energize other staff around the mission of the organization. They tend to be able to grasp modern technology more easily and can help an organization integrate the use of such technology to operate more efficiently and effectively. I believe they are, in a way, more connected to and aware of world issues because of their connection to technology, which puts more information at their fingertips.

Gen X’ers like me, are in the middle and bridge the gap between Generation Y and the Baby Boom generation that raised us. This diversity of experiences and perspectives can be an asset to any agency because each group has something valuable to offer.

Today, nonprofits are facing record numbers of retirements of executives in the very near future, but research shows that most are not investing in leadership development and that the majority of young nonprofit professionals do not see their future in the nonprofit sector.  The economy has certainly played a role in this, as it has impacted professional development budgets and cut the time people are willing to invest in developing their young staff.

It was said during the panel discussion that employers are hesitant to invest in developing their junior staff due to fear that the young Generation Y or X’ers will put in just a couple years at an agency, be trained, and take their skills somewhere else when they become a more “valuable” employee. The younger generations are seen as less stable or dependable to employers, usually because they don’t have families and mortgages for the most part. But many young people are in fact willing to stay at an organization if they feel like their employers care about them enough to invest in their futures and development and growth within the agency. At MMP, a handful of my colleagues and I are under the age of 35 and have been with the agency for at least two or three years. There may not be opportunities to move up through the ranks at every organization, but there are ways to foster loyalty among young staff.

While employers cannot totally control how long an employee chooses to stay,  organizations can employ valuable practices to help staff develop professionally and feel more connected. For example, they can assign senior staff to mentor  new or junior staff. Or, they can create a development plan that allows junior staff to take on additional responsibilities over time or lead a special project if they perform well.

People primarily learn by "doing," and development does not always have to happen through training. Many young professionals bounce around from job to job every two to three years because they feel there is nothing more to learn at their agency, or because they are not able to visualize a track for growth within an organization. But mentoring is a big piece of this. Young professionals are seeking mentors now more than ever, and often have to look outside of their agencies to find one through their own networks, affinity groups or associations. They thirst for the wisdom and knowledge that the soon-to-be-retired Baby Boomers may take with them.  Things like how to handle conflicts, or how to advocate for a raise or a promotion, how to develop a professional identity, or deal with difficult staff.  They need someone who can hear their challenges and relate.

The need for a mentor does not necessarily end after high school or college. In the youth mentoring field, we always talk about "return on investment" and how investing in mentoring can positively impact families and whole communities.  Well, if organizations foster practices to invest in their young staff and mentor them to be successful, it is not only an investment for that organization, but for the nonprofit sector as a whole. After all, we are in this sector to give back and create a better world, aren’t we? As professional adults, we need to offer our wisdom to the next generation at every stage of their lives: this is the continuum of mentoring.