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Millennials & Mentorship: Why Working to Learn Beats Working to Live

  • 8 min read

Millennials & Mentorship: Why Working to Learn Beats Working to Live


We’ve all heard the stereotypes. Millennials are lazy. Millennial employees are entitled. They lack company loyalty. They think everything can be done at the press of an app. But what if amidst the stereotypes and shock headlines, there was a better way to look at how millennials differ in the workplace from generations past - and use it to build a stronger business and office culture?

New research suggests that there might be. Rather than picking sides in the office place arms race of youths versus adults by comparing the groups directly, management and productivity researchers are now finding that the fundamental difference in how millennials work isn’t about how they work at all. It’s about how they view work. As a 2010 Harvard Business Review survey found, work-life balance isn’t an antiquated concept merely because we’re becoming increasingly chained to our desks, it’s because for millennials, they’re not just working to live.

“Millennials view work as a key part of life, not a separate activity that needs to be “balanced” by it. For that reason, they place a strong emphasis on finding work that’s personally fulfilling. They want work to afford them the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills, and connect to a larger purpose,” wrote Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd, after surveying more than 2,200 young office workers to find out what fulfilled them in the workplace. “That sense of purpose is a key factor in their job satisfaction; according to our research, they’re the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.”

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As years have passed, that desire for fulfilling experiences has only grown. A 2014 study conducted by consulting firm The Intelligence Group found that 88% of millennials surveyed specifically wanted “work-life integration” - a noted change from the concept of work-life balance, given that respondents found work and life to now be inextricably linked. “They’re looking strategically at opportunities to invest in a place where they can make a difference, preferably a place that itself makes a difference,” says Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer of The Intelligence Group.

The benefits of increased work-life integration aren’t just limited to employees. As Meister and Willyerd concluded in their study, “‘Am I continuing to learn and grow?’ is a question that resonates with employees of all ages. The way your organization helps them answer that question may be your competitive advantage in attracting, developing, and keeping tomorrow’s talent.” But how do you build an educational program that that fosters professional development and prioritizes education as an integral piece of the work-life balance? Here are a few suggestions.

Managers Should Do More than Manage

When Google launched Project Oxygen in 2009, their goal was to find a way to “build a better boss.” After parsing through years of performance reviews, they found that the eight characteristics of good bosses they’d honed in were pretty standard - lots of “have a clear vision and strategy” and “help your employees with career development.” But when they ranked the importance of those eight characteristics, they found something surprising: technical expertise was the least important attribute of successful managers. As the New York Times reported, the managerial attribute employees cared most about by a wide margin was “even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

As Google learned, even on highly technical teams, employees valued managers who looked at them as whole people and were organically engaged in their lives, not merely tools to solve projects. Even better: being able to build better managers was something they could do in-house, with the talent they already had. The company analyzed thousands of performance reviews to parse out exact markers by which managers could do better. Managers with low feedback were then provided with on-site coaching rather than being denied promotions; with coaching, even low-scoring managers were able to improve and be promoted within weeks.

Programs like Google’s don’t have to be as widespread as analyzing 10,000 performance reviews and building algorithms to analyze the findings. Making time to gather upper management for learning and development of their managerial skills is never a bad thing, but even small attitude shifts out of the gate can make a difference. As Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior VP of People Operations, told the Times, “If I’m a manager and I want to get better, and I want more out of my people and I want them to be happier, two of the most important things I can do is just make sure I have some time for them and to be consistent. And that’s more important than doing the rest of the stuff.”

Rethink What Mentorship Looks Like


It’s no surprise that mentorship opportunities greatly impact a millennial’s chance for success, but how do you build a mentorship program that’s going to work, instead of one that just partners off employees but does little else? Rethink what the role of a mentor is.

A 2014 study found that one of the biggest problems with mentorship is a disconnect between expected results and actual results leading to a lack of long-term mentors. As The Atlantic reported, in an informal study of Chicago-area mentors, many who didn’t return to mentoring after a year “started with a ‘sense of wanting to give back’ to society, but many expected ‘instantaneous change.’” Instead, the study suggests what successful mentorship programs have long been saying “The ultimate goal of ‘making the young person capable of doing the mentoring.’”

Another way to turn traditional, stodgy mentorship on its head is to try reverse mentorship. Reverse mentorship - the concept of pairing older workers with a millennial mentor - is rapidly being adopted by companies like Target and Cisco, who see the value in leveraging their digital-native young workforce as an organic way to bring their older workers up to speed on current trends in technology, business, and marketing. As the Times reported, it’s not just engaged millennials who benefit from their skills being valued; after the age of 30, adult brains lose some of their elasticity and ability to learn as quickly. By pairing older employees with  millennial mentors, it helps keep the brain cognitively engaged, which makes learning each future skill slightly easier.

Make Time for Learning


Companies like Apple and Etsy have built some of the largest in-house educational operations in technology. Apple’s notoriously secretive eight-year old program “Apple University,” run by the former dean of the Yale School of Management, boasts a faculty from universities such as Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley. Employees can choose classes based on their own specific - and often times, very specific -  interests, like one class for former founders whose companies had been acquired by Apple, on how to integrate into company life. AT&T University’s classes, where users can even earn a Masters degree in computer science, take a more leadership-focused approach, primarily spending time developing management skills in future executives.

A 2016 Gallup poll found that 87% of millennials find development important in a job, yet only 39% strongly agreed when asked if they’d learned new skills within the last month that would help them do their jobs better. But how do you bridge that gap if you don’t have Apple or AT&T’s resources? Work with what you have. Craft marketplace Etsy  launched Etsy School in 2013, offering classes on a variety of topics that employees could enroll in anytime a new class opened. Courses focus primarily on teaching employees skills they might not otherwise learn within their roles - such as learning how to code Python, or silk-screening t-shirts. Many classes don’t even have a workplace specific focus at all, but cater to developing employees’ personal interests, such as their popular class on biking in big cities.

Bringing in outside speakers and guest lecturers, especially ones who can speak to career skills that might impact employees as they advance in their career, is another low-effort, high-impact way to educate your workforce, and gain valuable knowledge that might not come up in your company’s day-to-day. Even classes teaching “soft skills” that millennials aren’t getting in school anymore - like financial management classes, or workshops on parenting - are becoming commonplace ways to attract and retain the best talent.

Remember: education programs don’t always have to be in house. Offering online courses from a company like Udemy - who also offers many free courses - is an easy way to make high-quality education available to employees at a lower price point.  Whether your employees are attending Apple University or picking up a la carte classes from Udemy or Skillshare, making sure management sets an example of using education opportunities is critical. Employees may demur from taking classes on their own time, yet fear using company time on non-project based work. While there are ways to fit education into office hours, such as giving employees a few hours a week solely dedicated to learning, the most demonstrable impact comes from having managers who not only encourage continuing education, but who prioritize it in their own schedules,

Work With What You Have


Launching an Apple University is no doubt daunting, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a wealth of resources already at your fingertips.Involving your managers and fellow employees to skillshare isn’t just an easy, low-impact way to start a learning and development program, it also presents an opportunity for cross-training employees and making companies more stable on the whole.

Cross-training, much like its name suggests, is the practice of teaching your employees the responsibilities of other members across the company - a valuable risk-mitigating measure that can have a major impact on both a company’s success and employee success. The benefits of cross-training are numerous; in the short-term, cross-training helps companies stay productive even if an employee is out sick or on vacation, by having someone who can fill in without missing a beat. In the long-term, the benefits grow exponentially. As Forbes reports, companies that prioritize cross-training are often more efficient, given the constant examination of how they work, and are better prepared to handle employee turnover without disrupting client work.

For employees, the benefits are even greater. Aside from increased transparency and corporate governance - a feature that tends to get lost as companies grow - employees who cross-train are better suited to pick up skills they wouldn’t previously have and advance up the ladder within the organization more quickly, given their better understanding of the full business, rather than just what their department works on. They also get the added benefit of teamwork and the feeling of working at a company that’s still familial and invested in each other’s successes, especially as companies grow larger.

It’s clearer than ever: one of the key millennial characteristics is just how much they want to learn. However, wanting to educate and challenge your millennial (and not-so-millennial) employees isn’t enough. Think critically about your education and mentorship opportunities: how are they helpful to advancing your employees careers, especially within your organization? How intertwined is education into the workday, rather than an extra task “to do” on top of everything else? Are managers being trained to foster a community where asking questions and educating are part of the culture?

Increasing education opportunities isn’t just a trick for retaining talent, or even building a workforce that’s a bit smarter. Perhaps the most surprising benefit of working to learn instead of working to live is that it’s one of the most organic ways to foster diversity and build a community within the workplace. New York City’s popular Settepani restaurant found their business ran far better when they concertedly hired across all age groups, and purposefully mixed employees of various age groups to work together. As Bloomberg reported, “hiring people across all age groups reduce[d] turnover and create[d] a culture of co-mentoring, where a young cook teaches the head chef to manage supplies online and the veterans train apprentices in the culinary arts.” Not only did it make Settepani’s workforce stronger, it also led to employees finding ways to help each other - such as adjusting work schedules so older workers with children could be home early in the evening.

As owner Leah Abraham put it, by mixing workers of all ages and creating a learning environment, they didn’t just build a restaurant: “It’s like a family where everyone helps each other.”

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