Your mentors are allowed to be younger

mm Russ Finkelstein

In a recent piece, I declared my hatred for the word “mentor.”

My reasons for such strong dislike include the framing of the relationship. Another reason is what mentors are “supposed” to look like. Ignoring the full range of demographics I could name, in this case I’m talking about age, as in “older than you.”

Over the last decade I have served as a regular career coach and advisor for a dozen or so organizations. One of my favorite experiences was attending the conference of each organization and serving as a coach to meet with 50-100 of their members or fellows. At each event I would meet a few more people that I sought to continue to advise. Sometimes, but rarely, they would follow-up. More frequently I would reach out and continue the conversations.

I met one of my favorite younger mentors 5+ years ago at a week-long training that I advised. Rather quickly, I was impressed by her presence in the group. I followed up with all attendees, but strongly encouraged her to keep in touch and let me know how I could help. Some time later, a work trip took me to her city and we caught up. She was going through a challenging work situation and I was able to be one of her ongoing sources of support.

She has since rebounded. I reached out to her once it was clear that I was going to need to start blogging and that the thought of doing so filled me with trepidation. She is now one of the key people advising me. I trust her instincts as a professional and her investment in my success. She has helped me to get comfortable with my voice, being vulnerable in my writing, and she lets me know when I am trying to do too much in one piece.

Her instincts are always spot-on. She has tremendous patience in helping me develop my confidence. She’s also 10-to-15 years my junior.

Time continues to widen the gap between my age and those I am first meeting. It hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for working with them, but it has helped me to see how much I have to learn from people in more youthful packages.

In fact, many of the people that I have advised over the last few years have become people that I turn to because I trust their expertise. I don’t diminish them by thinking of them as millennials who can only advise on the habits of their generation, but as accomplished professionals. In the same way that I don’t think of an accomplished older CEO primarily as an accomplished baby boomer.

What’s nice is that some of the rules that apply when reaching out to those ‘mentor with the impressive title’ types have eased up a bit. Younger people are more likely to appreciate being tapped for a conversation, because it happens from someone more senior less often. They also understand more readily the need for help as they are often still relying on others for support and guidance.

You have the ability to make work a bit easier by getting the support you need. Why would you limit the sources of help? However, over time I have learned to cut down on the references to Air Supply or the Facts of Life because a considerable amount of time is consumed explaining them. And I am still not entirely sure that I can.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >