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Mentorship and the So-Called “Entitled Generation”

By Mark Tighe, Flickr

Photo Credit:  Mark Tighe, Flickr

Friends, family, people of the internet…we need to talk. I have a difficult message for some of you, but it’s something that I think you need to hear. I know you think you’re helping, or at least not hurting anyone, but I disagree and I am officially putting my foot down. I cannot and will not listen to you whine about millennials anymore. That’s it. I proclaim the air, land, and water in my immediate vicinity to be a ‘no millennial bashing’ zone, and any violators will be dealt with harshly from here on out.

I’m sorry it’s come to this. Really, I am. But you left me no choice. 2016 has been a particularly rough year in millennial-bashing so far. A small sample of the things I have heard or read from various sources among you in the last month:

“If you hire a 20-something good luck, they don’t know how to work.”

“…a New York Times food column on cereal reported that 40 percent of millennials said cereal is an inconvenient food because it requires cleanup after eating.”

“The work-ethic decline is real,” said Jean Twenge, the author of  “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before”

“Entitled, that’s what I think they are.”

“…(former) Yelp employee Talia Jane Ben-Ora became momentarily famous as the poster-child for all things wrong with the entitlement mindset of young adults in today’s America.”

First I should say that I don’t believe that these generalizations are very accurate or useful, but let’s put that aside to address the larger issue since they’re widely perceived to be true, which is what led me to this breaking point.  The last straw was that I decided a few weeks ago to start challenging some of the people who casually toss around these assertions as though they are fact. Since virtually all of these viewpoints seem to be grounded in a feeling that millennials are not like ‘us’, and somehow ought to know how to do or be something different, instead of arguing about their validity I asked people if they would consider mentoring a person to help them develop the viewpoint, skills, or qualities that the speaker seemed to feel they were lacking.

People did not particularly enjoy this line of questioning.

A condensed synopsis of the responses I heard:

  • “They are not interested in being mentored”
  • “I wouldn’t even know where to get started”
  • “I don’t have time for that”
  • “They already think they know everything”
  • “I’m too busy”
  • “Why should I; they should figure it out on their own like I did”

Does reading that make you as sad as it does me? Do we not all have a child, sibling, niece, nephew, neighbour, or friend that falls into this big, faceless group we apply the ‘millennials’ label to who isn’t anything like the lazy, entitled millennial stereotype? Maybe it’s your 20-something cousin Timmy who works weekends while at university. Maybe it’s that new girl in Accounting who seems really engaged, or your own child who is working on establishing a solid career path. Think about that person. Does it seem fair that their interviewers, boss, or colleagues might assume that they probably don’t know how to work hard, but whatever…it’s not like it’s their job to provide them with advice about how to manage these perceptions and navigate their organization’s culture.

I’m guessing you wouldn’t want that for your cousin, friend, or child…I’m guessing that you would hope that their co-workers and managers would give them the benefit of the doubt and maybe even give them some advice or guidance. I’m guessing that you see where I’m going with this.

I’m not saying that there aren’t ‘entitled millennials’ in our workplaces; maybe there are some. I’m saying that assuming everyone in this age group is a hopeless lay-about is both inaccurate and (irony alert!) lazy! Of course we can complain that people younger than us seem not to understand the ways of work (probably based on a few anecdotal examples), but even if it were true complaining about it doesn’t change anything. Alternatively, we could take a crack at understanding what’s driving the behaviour that we’re interpreting as lazy/entitled/’fill-in-stereotype here’, and if warranted offer some mentorship, guidance, or advice based on our own experience. Maybe we’ll get shut down…but maybe we won’t.

Don’t have time for that? Sorry, but if you have time to complain (and it really seems like a lot of people do) then you almost certainly have time to mentor. I’m not suggesting that we spend hours daily formally training someone. I’m talking about being receptive to opportunities to share what you know with those who might benefit. Whether at work, at home (I sure hope that you’re giving cousin Timmy some good advice), or through some of the programs or platforms available in your city, industry, or profession.

Still think it sounds like too much time, effort, and risk? The genius micro-mentorship platform Ten Thousand Coffees allows you to create a profile and screen one-hour coffee meeting requests from less experienced members interested in meeting for coffee and learning from you. One hour, people!!!

If you are a person who feels that some of the stereotypes I’ve mentioned are true, I’d like to challenge you to try on a different lens when observing others in the workplace; a lens that assumes most people are doing the best they can with what they know; a lens that doesn’t iook for proof of the entitlement narrative in your interactions with others.

Instead of writing off an entire generation, perhaps you might consider viewing challenging interactions as an opportunity to influence our organizations’ next generation of professionals and leaders. I think that with a little fieldwork you’ll find, as I have, that ‘millennials’ are an enormously diverse group who defy the labels and stereotypes applied to them (as any gigantic demographic cohort does). And contrary to some perceptions, many of them are open to and eager for mentorship, as long as it’s offered in the right spirit.

Ultimately, we have a choice – do our part to work better, together…or continue to complain that a vast swath of our colleagues, neighbours, and fellow citizens should be different from we assume they are, while refusing to question those assumptions or do anything about it. If you elect to pursue the latter option, I’m very sorry, but I do not want to hear about it.

Postscript: I wanted to take another few sentences to reiterate my plug for Ten Thousand Coffees, which I’ve found to be such a great platform to meet engaged, eager professionals who are looking to receive or exchange advice and knowledge. If you want to know more, please check out their website and consider creating a profile.

Jane Watson is a senior HR practitioner in downtown Toronto. She is seriously committed to mentorship, having served as Chair of the HRPA Toronto Chapter’s Mentorship program, a repeat mentor at ACCES Employment’s speed mentoring events, and an enthusiastic Ten Thousand Coffees member. She also blogs about HR, work, and organizations (less frequently than she should) at Talent Vanguard.


So You Fire People?

HRThis blog post is part of our “Day In the Life” series offered this summer.

“So, you fire people?”

At a wedding last summer my fiance’s niece (who has an intense curiosity about work and jobs) had just been told what my job was.

“Well, sometimes.” I said, inexplicably feeling a bit defensive, “But I also hire people, and mostly I help resolve problems. You know, people problems.” She shrugged, clearly unimpressed by these less ruthless activities. Eight year olds are such savages.

There is no doubt that describing what we do day-to-day as HR professionals to non-HR people can be a disconcerting experience for everyone involved.

First, there is the sheer variation that exists between what we can credibly refer to as “HR roles”. A day in the life of two HR professionals can look as different as a Monet and a Picasso. What an HR person does at a small organization looks awfully different than it might at a large one. This makes any points of reference a non-HR person might have unreliable.

Non-HR Bob: “HR, right. Yes, we have an HR person who does payroll and organizes social events”

HR Sue: “Yeah, I don’t do any of that”

Then there is the unpredictable nature of working with people, change, and sometimes conflict.

Non-HR Bob: “So, what does your typical work day involve?”

HR Sue: “It depends…on whether we’re hiring, or firing, or if someone filed a complaint about someone else, or arrives in my office crying, or arrives in their manager’s office crying, or someone wants to do something that might get us sued, or…”

Usually at this point non-HR people will have given up and just muttered something about an appointment into their drink before shuffling away. Although every once in a while you’ll come across someone willing to persist.

Non-HR Bob: “So, when an employee comes and complains to you that their manager is a jerk, you sort it out?”

HR Sue: “Well, that depends…”

If at this point it seems that someone might be preparing to kick you in the shins, it is probably the opportune moment to bring up Scott Schaefer’s recent article in Harvard Business Review, which reminds us that “it depends” is by no means a sneaky side step. Rather, it is “The answer to every strategic business question”, and the trick is knowing what ‘it’ depends on. In my view, this is especially true in HR. How we respond and address concerns, conflicts, ‘people problems’ and opportunities are so dependent upon context: organizational, personal and circumstantial.

The reality is that an employee who complains about their manager might be the victim of a dangerous bully, or could be a serial complainant who is seeking retribution for a less than stellar performance review. Most likely, the truth is somewhere in between, and determining an effective response to this scenario (and most others) rests on identifying and weighing the factors that such a response depends on. Is the employee acting in good faith? What are their motivations and the desired outcome of their complaint – resolution or punitive action? What is known about the history of the employee? And their manager?

The factors that an effective response might depend on will vary depending on the issue at hand, the organization you work for, the people involved. Add to that the filters of organizational culture, policies, and precedent and it is a veritable ‘choose your own adventure’ story! Schaefer’s article notes that “Managers successfully address seemingly similar problems in very different ways and, as our corollary suggests, the trick is to find which solution fits with the specifics of your business.”That is a whole lot of ambiguity we wade through every day; x + y does not always equal z…but sometimes it does. No wonder trying to explain what we do is so difficult.

I for one accept this ambiguity, and in fact I look forward to continuing to confound eight year olds and non-HR people at weddings and cocktail parties for years to come. Don’t forget to tip your waitress…

What do you think? Does knowing what ‘it’ depends on feel like the right way to describe what we do?

A Complete User Guide to Your Mentor

As someone who helps run a mentorship program (for the HRPA’s Toronto Chapter), I know that what is top of mind for many professionals (particularly those in the early stages of their careers), is finding a great mentor.

The reality that we have all faced at some point in our careers is that classroom learning can only get you so far. Once we claw our way into the ‘real world’ of work, organizational idiosyncrasies, office politics, and the frequent ambiguity involved in much of our work can be disconcerting. Used correctly, mentorship can be of significant help in contextualizing these experiences and learning from them. Hence the drive to find that great mentor who will illuminate areas that are grey to us, share their knowledge, and perhaps their network too.

I understand this drive, and I see it as an intelligent response to both the intrinsic urge to improve ourselves, and as a reasoned approach to address a hyper-competitive job market, where young professionals need to explore every strategy to distinguish themselves as top performers and candidates. But the significant focus given to finding a great mentor ignores the other part of the equation. If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor, what happens then? The heavy focus on locking someone into that mentor role does little to highlight the significant power that protégés have to maximize the value and impact of mentorship, whether it’s coming from a formally recognized mentor, or from the many experienced people that surround us in our workplaces and lives. That is, professionals lucky enough to find a mentor or mentors very often fail to fully exploit the potential value of the relationship they find themselves in. Even the best mentor won’t be much help if you don’t know how to use them.

So I would like to offer protégés a few key tips to ensure that once they’ve found that mentor, whether it be at work, at home, or through their professional association or network, that they use their time with that person to its full potential.

Have a plan

You’ve been looking for a mentor, and you’ve found one. Nailed it, right? Uh, no. This is actually where your real work begins. You are the one seeking something (knowledge, advice, contacts), which means that you are the one who must build the ‘lesson plan’. This is not school, where you listen to a lecturer who sends out the syllabus. You need to articulate your goals and work with your mentor to leverage their experience to move you towards those goals. Think of it like a personal trainer; you can tell her that you want to be able to bench press 100 lbs, and she can use her knowledge and experience to help you reach that goal, but it’s always going to be you doing the heavy lifting. Some examples of good goals might be ‘learn more about the insurance industry/total rewards/people management; address my time management skills/interview skills; explore what my next career step should be; gain career management advice’.

Be proactive

Someone has agreed to share their time and knowledge with you. That is great! Treat them like the single attendee at a special event. That means that you should show them consideration in scheduling any time you spend together. Take the lead in suggesting times and be willing to compromise on where and when you meet.

Ask good questions

Put in some thought ahead of any meetings you have with your mentor. Do not show up expecting him or her to know what to say to support and guide you. Bring questions, work dilemmas, case studies, career challenges, interesting articles or ideas. Bring something.

Be open-minded

No matter what stage of our careers we find ourselves in, we all have some blind spots; things we don’t know that we don’t know. That’s why you need to be open to what you might learn from a mentor. Yes, I said you should have a plan (and you should), but the best advice I can give you is to remain flexible. Accept that your mentor may have things to teach you that you do not know you need to learn. Listen to what they have to say. Reflect upon it.

Request feedback

It seems obvious that those of us who seek out a mentor want feedback about what we are doing wrong, and what we could do better. But that may not be as clear to your mentor as you assume. If you’re truly seeking feedback from your mentor (about how you present professionally, on your resume, or with regards to your communications skills or interview performance etc.), you should explicitly ask for it. Let them know that you want their opinion, and that you are comfortable with constructive criticism. Give them permission to provide this valuable information to you, and then discuss an action plan to address any areas of development, and how you can best exploit your strengths.

Mentorship offers the opportunity to leverage someone else’s experience to augment your own professional knowledge – but that’s only if it used correctly! Protégés can maximize the value of mentorship if they recognize that they have significant influence over the quality and results of the relationship with their mentor. Adopting a strategy to optimize mentorship outcomes is worthy of as much attention as the search for a great mentor is.