Mentoring Engages all Generations


By Isabelle St-Jean

“When I looked at Dave across the desk I saw plenty of passion and potential, but when he looked in the mirror all he saw was incompetence and failure.”—Hunter Arnold

As a producer, entrepreneur and vice-president with, Hunter C. Arnold became a mentor as a result of the potential he saw in others—and an intrinsic desire to make a difference. The confidence Arnold had in Dave’s integrity and abilities gave rise to a mentoring relationship with impressive results, as chronicled in Arnold’s “Paying it Forward” chapter in Einstein’s Business: Engaging Soul, Imagination and Excellence in the Workplace.

Paying it Forward Yields ROI
Dave was seemingly floundering both personally and professionally, but Arnold saw differently. A few days after giving Dave a pep talk, Arnold decided to create a more effective mentoring strategy. The next meeting with Dave served to set the parameters of the engagement; Arnold explained that he would offer his support and guidance for a specific period of time in exchange for Dave’s increased commitment to his job and his development.

Over the next few weeks, they arrived early and worked late, and within a short time Dave showed amazing improvements; within months he had shifted from being the poorest performer to the top ranking among his colleagues. Eventually, Dave became an executive in the company with an income that was 600 per cent of what he started when he was hired less than five years before.

Whether Arnold was younger than Dave never entered into either the equation—or the success of their mentoring relationship.

Mentoring a Mainstay of Learning Cultures
With four generations working alongside each other these days, mentoring is undergoing a resurgence of appreciation as an important activity that fosters a learning culture while optimizing the flow of knowledge, skills and insights.

While keeping in mind that the root of the word, mentos, is anchored in “intent, purpose, spirit, passion”, we are wise to identify some of the psycho-social dynamics and intrinsic principles that facilitate and enhance great mentoring relationships. When skillfully created and maintained, these relationships can foster the deployment of creativity along with enhanced capabilities and immeasurable benefits for all concerned.

As to the common glue which bonds all generations in a mentoring endeavour? Trust.

Relational Trust Key to Productivity
Relational trust, a concept first developed in the educational leadership field, was identified early as the primary psycho-social organizational condition that fostered the best outcome amongst students. More specifically, the research conducted involved 12 Chicago schools in 2003, and explored the degree of trust between teachers, teachers/principals and teachers/parents; this revealed a direct correlation between heightened relational trust and better learning results in students.

That the wisdoms of the classroom can be carried directly over to the workplace in this case is evidenced by the productivity unleashed in an environment which values learning and community. That this scenario is made more dynamic and complex in the multi-generation workplace takes away nothing from the key lesson and potential.

The first step towards tapping that potential is posing the following question: “If we had the highest levels of relational trust flowing through our multi-generational workforce, what would it look like?” Fortunately, there is an impressive body of research to identify the primary behaviours conducive to establishing and maintaining trust.

In his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey amply demonstrates the power of trust in business and workplaces. Simply put, he said, when you trust someone, “you have confidence in them – in their integrity and in their abilities.”

Communication and Boundaries Build Clarity
Although Hunter Arnold and Dave’s superbly effective mentoring relationship began spontaneously, setting the parameters, clarifying intent and the willingness to put in the efforts on both side provided the solid footing that led to great results. That transparency and clarity that should be infused in the mentor/mentee relationship right from the beginning is congruent with Covey’s book on trust referred to above.

In their book, Creating a Mentoring Program: Mentoring Partnerships Across the Generations, Annabelle Reitman and Sylvia Ramizez Benatti reinforce the importance of clarity—with the caveat that mentoring, while becoming widespread in workplaces, can mean different things to different people, particularly across generations.

In their book, Becoming an Effective Mentoring Leader: Proven Strategies for Building Excellence in Your Organization, William J. Rothwell and Peter Chee emphasize that, in addition to interacting frequently and connecting, agreeing on boundaries is crucial for both parties.

Boundaries are crucial to framing the parameters and determining the relationship guidelines from the start. Key boundary defining questions include:

  • What should be the focus of our mentoring relationship?
  • What topics, if any, should be off-limits?
  • What measurable goals should we establish?
  • What topics or issues that we may discuss should be considered confidential?

Frequent Recognition and Encouragement
Together with the importance of boundaries, recognition and encouragement are similarly part of the winning formula. Frequent recognition and encouragement (FRE) was born out of positive psychology research, and has been identified by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin, authors of Profit From the Positive, as a powerful and free tool that can create impressive results. In their research, the authors found that “managers who scored in the top quartile for giving frequent recognition and encouragement saw a 42 per cent increase in productivity compared with managers who score in the bottom of quartile.”

However, Greenberg and Maymin point out that only 40 per cent of the employees surveyed said they receive any encouragement at all from their managers. The sad reason for this is that unless efforts are made to infuse the workplace with a positive and optimistic focus, the default setting tends towards what’s wrong rather than what’s right.

The Importance of Process Praise
Whether FRE is applied in the context of a mentoring relationship or between an HR professional, a manager and an employee, it is important to appreciate the importance of making it genuine for it to be effective.

In her research studies at Standford University, Carol Dweck found that process praise is more effective than person praise. Process praise comprises of describing the effort, the strategy or skills used to achieve the results. For example, saying, “I know you have a lot of responsibilities in this position and I really appreciate that you took the time, attention and made the effort to complete this extra task while your colleague was ill.” That kind of praise, focused on what the employee or mentee did, was found in Dweck’s research to promote greater self-confidence and resilience in employees.

For organizations or teams short on time or dollars to develop formal mentoring programs, FRE is a cost-free means of making the mentoring mentality part of your core culture; recognition and encouragement between peers or from supervisors and managers should never be underestimated as a powerful practice proven to build trust, engage employees and drive innovative potential.

Integrating FRE generously in the workplace expresses the deeper understanding that at the core of each employee lies a human being with an innate need for well-deserved recognition.

Professional speaker, author, life and business coach, Isabelle St-Jean, RSW, PCC brings to her clients a decade of experience in leading, educating and providing practical solutions to major work/life challenges and transitions. (

(PeopleTalk Spring 2015)

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