Commentary

The Feeling is Mutual: Mentoring the Next Generation

What happens when you achieve some success in advertising or in any field and you want to pay it forward?  What to do when a young person asks the vague question “Hey can I just pick your brain for a minute” followed by an empty silence?  What about when someone asks you to coffee and then just stares at you? 

Millennials are sponges for on-going feedback that boosts confidence and a sense of purpose.  Younger Millennials, who are just entering the workplace or only a couple of years in, tend to respond best to strengths-based coaching.  Even constructive feedback can be framed as a strength to develop versus a weakness that needs fixing. 

I strongly believe in mutual mentorship. For mentors, this means being aware that mentees are most likely to admire and covet your approach and experience, not your job. And for mentees, this means you don’t just ask for a mentor, you become mentorable. Bottom line, we can learn from each other. 

Below are my Mutual Mentoring Principles that have guided me during my career on both sides of the fence.

For Mentors:

Throw them in the spotlight.Teach them the tips and tricks of projecting confidence. This is especially important for introverts and quiet geniuses.  Encourage them to be vocal, assertive, and comfortable in their own skin even when it doesn’t come naturally right away.

Give feedback in the form of questions. This is classic teach a man to fish, but works wonders with Millennials.  Teach them logic vs. assigning tasks and they will enjoy their work much more… and you’ll save yourself a lot of time too!

You can’t “T” (think) your way out of an “F” (feel) situation.  Speaking of logic, this was a hard one for me to learn.  You can’t use logic all the time.  Sometimes it’s important to put aside deadlines to talk about the personal.  When they see outward signs that you care, you’ll find that despite the breaks, the work gets done faster too.

Pressure them to prove you right.  Positive reinforcement and a little attention will go a long way.  When you go out of your way to let them know they have a lot to contribute (brains & enthusiasm) that will make them happy about high expectations, and exceeding them.

Point out potential landmines and how to navigate them.  Share your mistakes and biggest obstacles. They just don’t know what’s in store for them.  Preparing them for hurdles almost everyone hits helps them not to get discouraged.

Present their ideas. Showing genuine enthusiasm for their work is step one. Helping them see the connection between their idea and a real world result (even if it’s in the distant future) keeps them interested.

Fight for them. Speaking of promoting their ideas, make sure they get to go to the important stuff… to witness the decisions being made.  When things get tough or they mess up in public, if possible, be the airbag that absorbs the hits.  The punches feel so much harder when you’re starting out. They’ll take it hard enough when you explain it later one-on-one.

Open doors for them.  Sometimes you don’t need to be their mentor, sometimes you just need to create an opening for them to speak or be listened to.

Teach them to be mentorable. They need to know that your time is valuable and to get the most from it they need to plan ahead, to ask themselves what do I want and need from this relationship? And, how will I make my mentor’s life easier in return?

Choose wisely & learn from them.  What often amazes me is the way many of the young people who work with me are able to balance ambition and intensity.  You might not realize that in some ways you are hiring a mentor.

For Mentees

Be brave.  Don’t shy away from stretch opportunities that seem like they might be a little bit out of reach.  No matter the outcome learning by doing is the best path to success – you’ll learn from both the wins and losses.  Trust that your mentor trusts you; they might let you tread water, but they’ll never let you drown.

Listen to understand not to be understood.  When your mentor asks you a question, don’t go with your first instinct to defend.  When your mentor asks you tough questions or challenges your decisions it’s because they care enough to help you figure it out for yourself.

Sometimes your mentor is tired.  Don’t be discouraged if your mentor doesn’t always have big chunks of time for you or asks you to come back later.  Remember they are working too, they get stressed sometimes, and they might also have a bad day every once in a while.  Learn to read the room and pick (and plan!) the right moments for long conversations.

Have faith in your energy and fresh ideas.  I’d hire for enthusiasm over experience any day, especially in more junior positions.  Having both is a rare combination.  Lean into your key strengths – optimism, energy, and fresh thinking.

Be a sponge for resilience.  Of course you should pay attention to tips on how to solve problems.  But you can often learn even more by watching how your mentor handles problems.  Successful people don’t focus on the obstacles in the way; they focus on the road ahead.  It’s a special skill that you can learn through osmosis.  

Always be prepared with your best thinking.  Your ideas don’t need to be perfect or correct, but they should always show genuine effort.  Create a plan for what you would like to learn and make sure you always follow up with the results.

Loyalty is key.  If you want to be invited to decision-making meetings and exposure to the back-end conversations, phone calls, and text messages you need to know how to keep this information to yourself.  It may be tempting to share your intel, but your #1 priority should be to support your mentor.  Never use the information you are entrusted with in a way that will damage reputations, projects, or careers. 

Be trustworthy. It’s important that you remember that you are not only representing yourself, but your mentor.  Always put your best foot forward when they create opportunities for you, no matter how big or small.

Save your mentor time so they can reinvest it in you.  Help lessen your mentor’s workload prompted and (even better) unprompted when you can.  Free up time by helping them so that they can spend it helping you.

Choose wisely & learn from them. Seek out someone who is passionate about their work, those are the people who will be the most interested in mentoring others.  Work hard and make mentoring you a worthy use of their energy.  Remember that inspiration is a two way street. 

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