Bridge age and expertise gaps with mentoring that works both ways

Want powerful mentoring?

Make it reciprocal.

The classic concept of a “mentor” is someone who’s older and more experienced.  That idea of a wise, generous senior advisor leading us along a career path is wonderful and soothing, and makes us all want mentoring. But the image is so limited, and so dated.  Here’s what can make mentoring really hum: fostering relationships that are reciprocal. 

I was thinking about the nature of mentoring during a recent long weekend, as I dropped in and out of a three-day conversation between my husband and one of his much younger professional pals.  

Andy Alexander has run an international news operation, won prizes and served a term as Washington Post ombudsman.  Once a classic newspaper guy, these days his work includes consulting, speaking, teaching and fostering media innovation at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication.  

Andy’s mid-20s friend, Ryan Lytle, has racked up an impressive resume as a multi-media expert in just a few years.  An outstanding 2010 Scripps College graduate, today he’s a rising star at Mashable.com, a leading source for news about social media.

Aside from the issues they touched upon, what fascinated me about the interaction between the two men was the way each listened intently and seemed to be learning from the other.  When I asked about it, Ryan said one thing he learns from veterans who grew up in a very different news business is how to build organizations and grow leadership.  Andy said, “Everything I do professionally is about the future of journalism.  And part of being engaged is staying in touch with the people who are creating that future.”

Neither Andy nor Ryan would use the term “mentor” in describing their relationship, and they didn’t think of this as a mentoring discussion.  But they both enjoy and benefit from their talks, despite their age differences and career situations. And their dialogue illustrates the benefits of an emerging concept: reciprocal mentoring, where each partner is both teacher and student. 

Actually, I think even traditional mentoring works both ways when it’s truly successful. At first glance it may seem the mentee benefits the most, getting advice and sometimes even the support of an informed advocate at critical moments.  But when the relationship clicks, the mentor gains just as much. 

Initially the joy of mentoring includes ego strokes.  It’s nice to have someone listen to you, and it can feel good when they follow your advice.  Then, as the relationship grows, the mentee’s questions and feedback can give the mentor a chance to pause and gain a new perspective.  Eventually, the conversation becomes truly two-way, with both partners seeking advice, sharing insights and exploring delicate career questions in an environment of trust.

But, as Andy and Ryan illustrate, there’s no need to wait for mentoring relationships to mature over the years into bilateral dialogues.  Why not seek relationships, or create programs, which from the very beginning are dedicated to reciprocal mentoring?

Initiating a reciprocal mentoring partnership is easiest when both people have strengths and expertise, but in different areas.  These days, when generations have such diverse skills sets, reciprocal mentoring across age groups has immense appeal. Perhaps a Boomer with leadership experience but meager social media skills might be partnered with a Millennial who understands IT and staying connected but doesn’t know how to manage people.

 Whether you want to recruit reciprocal mentors to support your own growth, or are interested in introducing the concept to your organization, here are points to consider:

  • The match is key.  Not every partnership is successful, and it can take a few tries.  Both parties should feel like there’s something to gain, and mentoring works best when both people enjoy the other’s company.  If you’re on the hunt for possible mentors for yourself, whether reciprocal or otherwise, you’re more likely to spot possibilities if you have broad social and professional circles.  So pump up your networking and find groups and activities that allow you to meet new people.  If you want to structure some kind of program, consider using social tools like LinkedIn.com as part of the matching process.
  • Require commitments.  Sometimes protégés chill their mentoring relationships by taking offense at the very advice they sought.  Partners who ask for guidance or feedback should agree to listen carefully and put aside defensive reactions.  It’s a good idea to set some ground rules at the start of a partnership. Touch upon issues like confidentiality, agree to maintain a positive tone and promise to avoid time wastes, like whining.
  • Identify specific requests. It’s not enough for partners to begin with a vague sense they’d like some career help.  Each partner should enter the process with clear ideas about issues to explore and forms of assistance that would be welcome.  Later, when the relationship is successfully launched, it might grow in surprising directions.
  • Consider logistics.  It’s great if you find a mentor in your neighborhood and can meet over coffee or lunch.  But what if you go through your professional or alumni group and find an ideal partner who lives across the country?  Explore options like phone calls, Skype or social media chats, and set a schedule that’s comfortable and convenient for both of you.

If you are looking for way to get started, think about your college alumni groups.  One way Andy and Ryan are reaching across professional generations is through their active participation in the Scripps alumni network.  

New media guru Ryan Lytle, Scripps College of Communication, Class of 2010.

New media guru Ryan Lytle, Scripps College of Communication, Class of 2010.

 

Journalist Andy Alexander, 2013 Ohio University Commencement Speaker, and Scripps College Class of 1972.

Journalist Andy Alexander, 2013 Ohio University Commencement Speaker, and Scripps College Class of 1972.

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in Career management, mentoring, networking Tagged with: ,

Beverly E. Jones

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Kerry Hannon - Website
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Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
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