Today’s new work force seems to want something more than previous generations, and that’s mentors.


On first glance you might not find this particularly remarkable. Who wouldn’t want a mentor? But the new generation’s heightened interest in mentorship tells us something beyond face value. I think it represents some serious generational differences in the way workers and bosses view management.


Remember, mentors don’t really train you to do your job. They share with you the experiences of having done what you’re doing. They give you guidance on how to handle yourself, how to deal with people, how to pursue goals, how to be a professional. But they don’t teach you how to perform your basic tasks.


When so many younger workers ask for mentors, this seems to me what they really want. And what it reflects is a failure of both managers and systems to give them the basics they need to do their jobs.


To some degree it’s the product of the fading, but not yet disappeared, philosophy of management known as “sink or swim.” And I’ll confess something to you: I used to be a sink-or-swim guy. I used to believe it was the best way to make people master their jobs.


After all, I would reason, I didn’t have time to walk everyone through all the tasks they were supposed to be doing. So it made more sense, as I saw it, to demand people who knew what they were doing when they walked in the door. Then those I added to the team could either prove themselves or perish. Those who remained would be an outstanding group.


A charitable way to describe this is “hands-off management.” Such a manager reasons that he or she is giving people the freedom to figure things out for themselves. It’s really a remnant of the post-World War II era, and there was a time when it made sense to me.


That stopped around 2012 when some of my younger employees persuaded me they’d be a lot more effective if they at least had processes or systems that established how they should do things. Without this, everyone was kind of making it up for themselves, and the result had little consistency to it.


One of the most successful retail establishments in the world is the Apple Store. It’s also the most process-driven. Everyone there is intensely trained on the Apple Store way of doing everything – from dealing with customers to solving problems and every other aspect of the experience. The process becomes intrinsic, and that’s what makes the results so predictable and so consistently good. There’s no sink-or-swim if you work at the Apple Store.


My young employees told me they wanted mentorship. They really just needed some dependable guidance on how to do their jobs – the sort of thing a sink-or-swim manager is never going to give them.


That doesn’t mean there’s no value to mentoring. Of course, there’s tremendous value to it. A mentor can help you understand your challenges and provide someone to listen and answer questions. Who wouldn’t want that?


But there are traps involved with mentoring. Traditionally, it’s the sort of thing you see managers or senior-level people do. You want to be a good mentor and be there for people, but at some point you have to do your job and they have to do theirs.


Also, a senior person who gets involved with mentoring should understand that the process is both upstream and downstream. If you’re doing mentoring right, you should learn as much from the mentees as they learn from you. That’s a real benefit for the aging portion of the workforce that’s being asked by younger workers for mentors.


I would also advise this to any company that wants to start a mentorship program: Don’t overthink it, don’t over-invest in it, and don’t try too hard to be like the biggest companies who have done it successfully. Don’t waste time looking around for the perfect mentorship program to emulate.


Just get it started. This is one of the few times I’ll tell you that, because I’m a big believer in systems and processes. But in this case, you’re running the risk of too many people trying to build the system and making it completely unwieldy. Mentorship doesn’t have to be that complicated. Find the people who are well-equipped to do it and let them become the mentors.


A good way to get people started is to have them read The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. It’s a simple and quick read, and it will give any mentor a good foundation for how to get started.


By the way, it’s usually assumed the mentors have to be senior people and the mentees have to be more junior. That’s a good model but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Bilateral or team mentoring can also be very effective. Colleagues can do a great job of mentoring each other because they understand better than anyone what your challenges are.


So I’m all about mentoring. But when you hear your people asking for mentors, make sure it’s not really their way of bemoaning a lack of guidance, systems and processes to help them perform their basic tasks. They might not even realize that’s what they’re missing, but as their manager you should realize it.


Give them what they need to do their jobs, and give them good mentoring, you’ll be creating the space where they can do their jobs themselves. And you can’t hope for a much better management triumph than that.


Written by: Wade Wyant

Red Wagon Advisors