Redefining Mentoring: With Millennials, It’s A Two-Way Street

By Carrie Mason-Draffen

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Experts contend that millennials, the first generation weaned on the constant back-and-forth of social media technology, are eager for feedback and actively seek mentors. So unlike baby boomers, who are more likely to have one or two mentors over their working life, younger workers often have had several early on in their careers, in part reflecting how often they change jobs. We here at WWR are big proponents of mentorship as a way of empowering women in the workforce. So find yourself a Mentor Today!


Millennials are changing the nature of mentoring on Long Island and in the nation.

These young people, ages 19 to 35, are embracing this workplace rite more than previous generations because they seek out feedback, workplace experts said.

And they are redefining the nature of mentoring. Rather than the typical top-down approach, in which senior employees impart knowledge to their juniors, millennials prefer give and take.

“They are the ones that have driven the shift from mentoring being viewed as this mentor-mentee relationship where the senior person imparts all the wisdom and experience and knowledge to the mentee,” said Janet Lenaghan, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at Hofstra University. “It has shifted to being viewed as a mutually beneficial relationship. It blurs the lines between who is the mentor and who is the mentee.”

Emily Wilensky, 31, the marketing director of food manufacturer Tasty Brands in Syosset, credits her relationship with her mentor, Andrew Signorelli, 57, the company’s vice president of operations, with making her more adept at interpersonal communications on the job.

“I am more confident in myself and in my skills,” said Wilensky, a Farmingdale resident and Syracuse University graduate. “When I am on the phone, it doesn’t matter who it is. I am more assertive.”

Meanwhile, Signorelli seeks Wilensky’s help on issues such as a greater use of social media to help promote the company’s name in public. “She is making me aware of some of the more modern vehicles of marketing,” he said.

Millennials 1 in 3 workers
Millennials are the dominant generation in the workplace, surpassing Gen Xers (ages 36 to 51) and baby boomers (ages 52 to 70), according to a Pew Research Center study last year. Millennials now account for more than one in three American workers.

Federal data shows that 20- to 34-year-olds — the closest Census category to the millennial age range — make up 18 percent of Long Island’s population. Local workforce numbers for millennials are unavailable.

Experts contend that millennials, the first generation weaned on the constant back-and-forth of social media technology, are eager for feedback and actively seek mentors. So unlike baby boomers, who are more likely to have one or two mentors over their working life, younger workers often have had several early on in their careers, in part reflecting how often they change jobs.

“Millennials often have more than one mentor,” Lenaghan said. “They use social media to reach out and establish their own mentoring relationships.”

Mentoring pays off for both employers and employees, research shows.
A Harvard Business Review article last year noted that mentoring programs enabled junior to midlevel professionals to advance more quickly and to earn higher salaries and experience more job satisfaction than people who weren’t mentored.

Betty Heiman, 50, chief executive and founder of the health-benefits company Transparent Healthcare in Plainview, credits her mentor, who was also an early investor in her 6-year-old company, with helping her to sharpen her company’s mission and broaden its market.

Her vision was to establish a network that offered health benefits for individuals who remained uninsured even after the federal Affordable Care Act took effect. But to her mentor, her business model suggested “social entrepreneurship” and should be extended to include underinsured individuals as well.

“It allowed the company to continue to broaden its scope and broaden its purpose, so that is part of the enormous success that we have been having,” Heiman said.

Higher pay found
And mentoring helps companies hold onto valuable employees.

“Mentoring is a critical retention tool,” said Anna Beninger, director of research at Manhattan women’s research and advocacy group Catalyst.

Mentoring has helped 26-year-old Douglas Henningsen envision a bright future at Racanelli Construction Co. in Melville. The East Northport resident, who started working at Racanelli soon after he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in construction management from SUNY Delhi, is an assistant project manager and hopes to be promoted to project manager “in the near future.”

Mentoring by vice president Martin Racanelli Jr. and his three brothers has given him key managerial experience, Henningsen said. That mentoring includes the meetings the Racanellis hold with project managers and their assistants every two weeks.

“Leadership and management of the subcontractors coupled with professionalism and respect toward clients” are among the skills Henningsen said he’s gained. He said he’s also learned “how to make decisions and execute them on time.”

He, in turn, has shared with Racanelli and others in the company his know-how of advanced project-management, scheduling and cost-estimating software. “I grew up with this,” he said. “I understand how it works.”

Racanelli, a third-generation executive at the company, said millennials’ technology skills are an asset to his firm.

“They have the smarts,” said Racanelli, 47, adding that his role as mentor is to help them bridge the gap between those skills and real-world experience.

Mentors say the flip side of millennials’ fluency with technology is that they are sometimes less skilled in face-to-face interactions.

Millennials sometimes overlook the importance of in-person conversations in business because they are so accustomed to texting or emailing, Signorelli of Tasty Brands said.

“Live interpersonal communication, and the skills involved in doing that effectively, seem to be lacking,” he said.

Lean, diverse workplaces
Some experts contend that mentoring is more important then ever in this age of lean workplaces that are increasingly diverse.

“It’s so critical that organizations embrace continuous learning,” Lenaghan of Hofstra said.

As companies become more diverse, however, their mentoring efforts can trip over the problem of exclusion, especially regarding people of color, one expert said.

The most effective mentoring programs are the informal, or self-selective ones, said Michele Williams, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. But those can be exclusionary if people at the top of the organization tend to help younger workers “who look like [them],” she said.

“People aren’t excluding ethnic minorities from the networks, as much as they are helping people who are similar,” Williams said. “It’s the helping people who are similar that maintains the mentoring disparities.”

Companies have tried to tackle the tendency to exclude workers of color through formal mentoring programs that make inclusion a key priority, she said.

That inclusive approach also needs to extend to older mentors recognizing and valuing what young people bring to the table, millennials said.

Michelle Blum, 27, the founder and owner of Nutrish Mish Inc., a nutrition consulting company with five locations on Long Island, credits her current mentor with helping her to sharpen her 4-year-old company’s mission, even while approaching her as a peer.

“You’re saving lives, and I want to be a part of that,” she said her mentor, Eric Scher, who designs websites, told her.

And now Scher is not only a mentor but an investor whom she meets with once a month and speaks to daily.

Blum said she values his advice as well as his democratic approach.

“He always listened to my ideas,” said Blum, a Farmingdale resident and Hofstra University graduate. “He kind of helped guide me rather than tell me what to do. Had he come at me in a different way, it might not have been a great relationship.”

Of millennials, she said, “It’s not that we think we know better, and I think a lot of times we get misconstrued that way,” Blum said. “It’s just that we have a different approach.”

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