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Gen-Ys turn to mentors

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Smart and ambitious under-30s are increasingly being mentored, to round out their skills. For employers it’s a chance to demonstrate their commitment. By MIKE PRESTON.

As they take over from baby boomers, Generation Y employees are proving more ambitious and more demanding, and one of those demands is for one-on-one nurturing.

By Mike Preston

Mentoring has gone mainstream. Once considered something for senior executives in lofty corporate towers, the onset of the skills shortage and a new generation of me-focused workers – Generation Y – have made mentoring a key staff management tool for SMEs.

And new technology means mentoring has become increasingly accessible to businesses of all sizes, as the next generation of Web 2.0 online tools makes it easier to tap into experienced business mentors in a time and cost-effective way.

Mentoring – a relationship through which a person uses the experience they have in business and life to help another explore and achieve their personal and career goals – is now on the agenda of a majority of top business managers, according to a recent survey conducted by chief executive professional development group The Executive Connection in the second quarter of 2007. Just over 50% of chief executives who responded to the survey said they already have or are developing a mentoring program at their business, up from 39% in 2006.

TEC chief executive Mike O’Neill says the drive to retain staff is clearly part of the explanation for the increase, a view supported by the fact that chief executives in labour-starved WA were the most likely to already have implemented a mentoring scheme in their workplace.

“Retention, retention, retention is the name of the game, obviously businesses in WA are putting mentoring programs in facing to deal with their particular problems but it really is a national phenomenon,” O’Neill says.

He predicts that mentoring will become more common as employers struggle to cope with the exodus of baby boomers from the workforce and their replacement by the under 30s – Generation Y.

“Generation-Y have all the information, they are ahead of everyone else in terms of technology and its application but that doesn’t mean they know how to make good decisions, and that’s where mentoring can be useful,” O’Neill says.

Self-confident and self-focused, the generation born between 1977 and 1992 can often prove a handful for employers. In a recent SmartCompany Opinion Leaders poll, 71% of employers reported Gen-Ys are more likely to ask for training or mentoring, and they are more demanding than older workers on pay, career advancement and work/life balance.

Experienced mentoring researcher, author and director of consultancy Mentoring Works, Ann Rolfe, says Gen-Ys generally won’t stay in a job unless they feel their employer cares about them personally and has shown an interest in their career development.

“Gen-Ys need to have their career aspirations attended to – sometimes a bit of a reality check as well, of course – and that is something a good mentoring relationship is well suited to,” Rolfe says.

When mentoring is working well, the person being mentored is able to use the wealth of experience the mentor provides to reach their own conclusions about how to achieve their work and career goals, an approach Rolfe says Gen-Ys appreciate.

“They don’t want to be told what to do, and often that is exactly what baby boomer bosses are inclined to do, so that can be a bit of a problem,” Rolfe says. “Gen-Y responds to mentoring because it is all about helping people reach that ‘ah ha!’ moment for themselves.”

One Gen-Y-heavy SME that has taken to mentoring with gusto is Queensland beauty service provider Garth Male Grooming. Although a small business with four Gen-Y staff, owner Marguerite Hancock says the ‘ridiculous’ level of staff turnover in the beauty industry meant retention was a challenge she had to face.

“Holding on to staff is a top priority for us, but they won’t tell you what they want if you don’t ask, so mentoring is a way for us to keep a conversation going about where they want to go,” Hancock says.

Hancock encourages her employees to feel comfortable talking about money, but she says it is usually not at the top of their agenda. “One of the girls said she desperately wanted Friday off with her boyfriend, for another it was recognition and a name badge was really important, but I wouldn’t have known if we didn’t have the mentoring sessions.”

Hancock undertook some training before she started mentoring her staff. She meets one-on-one with each staff member for an hour or so once a month but also brings in an external mentor from time to time, time and money she believes is well spent. “You can’t make money without investing in staff, especially in a service industry,” Hancock says.

The use of an external mentor is something many mentoring experts believe is important because, however close the relationship, employees will often be reluctant to honestly discuss things such as long-term career aspirations with a superior.

The need to go outside the business can be especially important for SMEs, where experienced people will almost always have some management responsibility for staff. This can create a difficulty, however, if an appropriate mentor is located far away from the business or doesn’t have the time to visit the business on a regular basis.

Increasingly, however, mentors are using technology to get around this problem. The Australian Businesswomen’s Network, has been using cutting-edge Web 2.0 technology to connect female SME owners with mentors through its Mentornet program since January this year.

Mentornet uses a combination of online classrooms, blogs, podcasts, teleconferencing, virtual meetings and a social networking facility similar to Facebook and Bebo to facilitate interaction between experienced mentors and new business owners.

Online mentoring takes place in groups of four participants to one mentor via a hosted webinar that allows participants to see, talk, view common documents and see pictures of each other, or at any time through blogs and email.

ABN national general manager Suzi Dafnis says although participants find the lack of face-to-face contact a bit “weird” at first, they quickly adjust, with training and familiarity with the interface. “Once they’re in there interacting and raising their ‘hands’, they really get into, and it is much more convenient for busy people; for seven years we ran a face-to-face mentoring and it was hard to people to dedicate the time, so that is why we went to the online format,” Dafnis says.

Whether delivered online, over the phone or face-to-face, there are pitfalls that it is important to avoid when establishing an in-house mentoring program for employees. Mentoring Work’s Ann Rolfe says that when mentoring programs don’t work, it is usually for one of the following reasons:

  • A failure to make resources available: far too many businesses set up an in-house mentoring program but expect mentors and their subjects to just “find the time” to participate. Mentoring requires preparation and can’t just be left to the last 10 minutes of a busy day, Rolfe says.
  • No training for mentors: mentoring is a skill, and is different from training or coaching, Rolfe says. “Baby boomers, in particular, tend to want to tell people what they should do or how to do it. This is not what mentoring is about.”
  • The mentor takes over: although mentoring can be rewarded for all concerned, the subject should be setting the agenda – after all, they are the ones you are looking to retain.
  • It’s just another job: mentoring can’t be done in a tick-a-box way, especially where authenticity sensitive Gen-Ys are concerned. So when establishing a mentoring program, ask for interested volunteers, don’t make it part of a managers job.

There is, however, one downside to mentoring that can’t be avoided – sometimes the development of a junior employee will see them grow out of their job, and out of your business. But as Garth Male Grooming owner Marguerite Hancock says, in the current environment that’s something business owners have no choice but to embrace.

“You can’t stick you’re head in the sand and think you’ll have staff forever, and I would rather have somebody with the skills and ambition to want to do other things,” Hancock says. “If you stand in the way of their development, not only will you have a worse employee, they will probably leave anyway and be unhappy when they do.”

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