by Lauren Brousell

6 ways to give millennials the mentorship programs they want

Jul 16, 2015
IT LeadershipMentoring

Traditional corporate mentorships just don't cut it for today's millennial workers. Younger employees seek meaningful and time-efficient relationships with senior colleagues. These six expert tips can help organizations understand millennial wants and needs, and create more effective mentor programs.

Credit: Thinkstock

Millennials, now the largest generation in today’s workforce, think mentoring is the most effective and most desired type of career development training, according to a November 2014 Virtuali survey. However, millennials generally aren’t satisfied with corporate training programs, including mentor opportunities. Companies need to be more creative when structuring formal programs and also encourage their millennials to seek both internal and external mentorships. 

Mentoring “will be the difference between [millennials] that succeed and fail,” in the corporate world, according to Nigel Dessau, CMO of Stratus Technologies, creator of The 3 Minute Mentor and author of Become a 21st Century Executive: Breaking Away from the Pack.

Companies that want to attract the best millennial talent would be wise to adjust their mentorship programs accordingly. The following six tips can help organizations create effective mentorships program that will benefit millennials, mentors and their employers.

1. Forget everything you know about yesterday’s mentorships

Traditionally, mentorship programs have been set up by HR, and younger employees were matched with managers or executives, who then performed sets of check-in meetings and evaluations during a given time period, such as six months or a year. But millennials are disrupting that mentorship model. They want better, faster and more effective mentor programs — or they’re ditching HR and doing it on their own. Companies should think of ways to refresh their current programs and engage millennials.

[Related: 6 ways to attract and retain millennial workers]

EF Education First‘s 360 rotational program is a yearlong management training program that doubles as a mentoring opportunity for entry-level millennials. Employees rotate through the organization’s departments, but what’s unique is that millennial employees are matched with key senior-level mentors to check in with throughout the program and beyond.

Helene Vincent, a product innovation manager at EF and 26-year-old millennial, was a 360 program member and was matched with an executive vice president of product innovation. Vincent’s mentor supported her efforts to launch a new language immersion program at the company. “[W]e were starting a new product and we had to get buy-in from folks all across the board, everybody from entry level sales people to the chief folks running the divisions,” Vincent says. “[My mentor] was great at helping me strategize about how to get buy-in and how to make sure that what I was starting would benefit everyone involved.”

2. Get senior execs, key business leaders involved in mentoring

Millennials are often perceived as having high aspirations and lofty career goals. Many of them believe they can and should make it to the top of the org chart faster than previous generations. Mentorship programs can help companies match millennials with key executives in the roles they want to someday fill.

It can be hard for busy executives to find time for mentoring, but it’s important for companies that want to retain millennials to have a few key business leaders involved in mentorships. “Programs don’t work unless someone in HR or a senior executive is going to accept the role of champion and is willing to make sure the company invests in the program,” Dessau says.

Amanda Mitchell, founder of executive coaching and management consultancy Our Corporate Life, says companies should get employees who are responsible for revenue, such as heads of marketing or sales, to drive the agendas of their mentor programs. “When they go to management and say they need this, they have juice behind them. They also need a strong partner in HR.” 

Mitchell also suggests tying mentorships to financial or performance goals so senior people commit to participating. “Until you make it someone’s responsibility, it’s a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.”

3. Millennials can be ‘reverse mentors’

Millennials don’t want canned career advice or the same old, same old management-training tips. They want unparalleled access to key people, as well as specific advice based on what’s actually happening with the company and the industry.

Sharada Subramaniam, manager of transition and integration at Walgreens and a millennial, has a mentor relationship with the company’s vice president of IT. The executive was previously her boss, and the mentorship is a mutually beneficial extension of that relationship. “She’ll tell me what’s going on at the top and what it means for me, and I’ll help her understand what people on the ground are thinking,” Subramaniam says.

The relationship is also a “reverse mentorship,” and the two help each other; it’s not a one-sided arrangement in which the mentor provides the only guidance. When Walgreens opened an office in downtown Chicago as an alternative place for employees to work so they didn’t have to make the trek to its suburban headquarters in Deerfield, Ill., Subramaniam helped her mentor overcome her initial hesitance to embrace the idea. I helped her understand that we should be more concerned about what their deliverables are versus physically seeing them,” Subramaniam says. “It was important for her to hear the perspective of someone she trusts and it helped her build that confidence that it wasn’t about people slacking, it was about finding what they’re comfortable with to be more productive.” (That office has since closed.) 

4. DIY mentoring options for millennials

Managers and executives may not be able to dedicate as much time as they’d like to mentorships, and not all millennials want regular check-in meetings to invade their calendars. Thankfully, giving and receiving mentoring tips doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Our Corporate Life’s Mitchell says a company she works with created a podcast with one of its executives to give millennials on-demand mentoring tips. “Rather than a one-off or a lunch and learn, record it and use it on the intranet. It’s learning on your own time.” Mitchell also suggests getting key managers and executives to use social media to answer questions from younger employees.

Dessau’s website, 3 Minute Mentor, provides three-minute videos that offer quick career advice. He says the short length fits millennials well because of their fast-moving habits around social media and technology.

5. External mentorship opportunities for millennials and employers

Many millennials like to network outside of their organizations, and companies can and should help facilitate external mentoring opportunities. Millennials may form mentorships outside of the corporate walls via social networks, events or external programs. Dessau says external mentorships can provide career guidance and potential future job opportunities.

[Related: How to Help Millennials Prepare to Be Successful Leaders]

Toyota Financial Services (TFS) partners with the STEM Advantage program, which provides career opportunities and mentoring in science, technology, engineering and math to women and underserved communities. TFS hires interns through the program and pairs them with its executives for mentorships. TFS CIO Ron Guerrier says being involved in STEM Advantage keeps him and his IT department up to date on what millennials want. “We as an organization can learn from them,” he says. “We’ve invited them to innovation labs, and they’re educating us on how they think. There are benefits on both sides.”

6. Help millennial mentees help themselves

Millennials sometimes expect mentors to tell them what to do, but the experience will be more valuable for both sides if millennials have specific goals in mind. The preparation doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and simply outlining a few points, writing down a few questions or thinking of specific objectives can completely transform meetings, according to Mitchell. “Be prepared when you come into a mentor relationship,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t want to help you, but they need to know what you need.”

Millennials should not only know to plan for mentor meetings, but their organizations should help them think about how to best use the time during meetings and reflect on it afterwards. Companies should let millennials know that it’s OK to say no to mentorships if they’re not the right fit, or end a meeting if it’s not productive. The ability to acknowledge and accept the fact that a mentorship isn’t useful anymore is an important step. Many companies require mentorship programs to last for a set amount of time, but not all mentor-to-mentee arrangements are productive for that long.