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Henley Leadership Group Blog

What Can A Younger Mentor Teach You, Really?


This may be one of the best ways for leaders to be inspired.

The world is changing fast, and it’s not always easy to catch up and keep up. It’s that much harder if your mind is closed off to new ways of doing things, ideas that challenge you and opportunities to grow.

Keep learning and challenging your mind, though, and you’ll not only become more adaptable to change, you’ll live a longer, healthier life.

How can you become more open-minded? I’ve written about the art of staying curious – making space for healthy mind-wandering, dabbling, asking thoughtful questions, really listening, experimenting with the new. These are all helpful ways for keeping your mind open. 

Another strategy is to actively remain open to being influenced by others who see the world differently than you do. This is also why one of the best ways to keep your mind open is to find a younger mentor. A mentor is a kind of advisor — like an accountant or a lawyer — except a mentor cultivates a deeper relationship with you. They are interested in your success and in helping you get out of your own way. 

We often think of mentors as the elder who’s walked your path and has wisdom and insight to share from their decades of experience. But a younger mentor can offer an entirely different view that will challenge you, keep you sharp and help you tap into forward-looking perspectives.

The Value of a Younger Mentor

A younger mentor can provide much more than just helping you with the latest and greatest technology. They can provide important information about the workplace culture and your impact on it as a leader. They can help you keep a pulse on what is working and not working in the culture from the perspective of up-and-coming younger leaders. And they can help you to remain open in your approach to challenges, learning and risk-taking. 

“My younger mentors provide something invaluable,” writes Liz Jin. “They inspire me to take risks, to live in the moment, to be hungry about learning, and to look at my obstacles with fresh eyes and creative solutions.” 

Julia Davis, Aflac’s chief information officer, paired older IT employees with recent graduates to facilitate knowledge transfer of state-of-the-art best practices and trends. This “reverse mentoring” program has worked beautifully in knowledge-sharing, and it’s also getting traditional IT workers out of their silos.

The beauty of a mentoring relationship is that, when it’s a good match and facilitated well, it creates value for both the mentee and the mentor. A former executive client of mine, Bob Elton, ten years my senior and CEO of Royal Crown Company in Vancouver, BC, engaged me as his coach to help him learn new approaches to leadership. In many ways, I became his mentor. And I also learned much from our conversations. It was a truly reciprocal relationship. 

Why You Have to be Open to Influence

Change isn’t easy. It can be uncomfortable to receive criticism or pushback against long-held beliefs and personal truths. But whether it’s feedback from a mentor, a coach, a subordinate or someone else, the only way you’ll benefit and grow from their perspective is to be open to influence. This might be something you are truly terrible at. Rather than being open to influence when someone gives you feedback, perhaps you become defensive, argumentative, closed off. Maybe you get your feelings hurt when someone shares that what you’re doing doesn't work. What usually happens next: Out of self-protection, you engage the primal brain and fight, take flight or freeze. 

Fighting looks like shooting back with a nasty comment at the person providing you with their perspective. It might sound like coalition-building or complaining, engaging in conversations with others about how hurt you are or how wrong the person is who gave you feedback. Flight could manifest into you quitting your job and blaming your boss or your co-workers. Freezing might look like numbing out, having one more glass of wine, binge watching Netflix or keeping your head down with busyness. None of these three strategies — fight, flight or freeze — will add up to a positive outcome. 

Truly being open to influence means that you allow other people to change the way you see yourself, the way you behave, the way you think and take action. Through their input and sharing, they change you. You allow them to change you. You take in what they are saying and seeing and make changes.

Shift Your Perspective

For years, we equated age with wisdom, believing that a person only has something meaningful to contribute once they reach a certain age or stage in their careers. Mentoring programs within organizations were structured to include one “seasoned” leader and one “junior” high-potential person. Undoubtedly, a lot of good came from these kinds of mentorships. But in a fast-changing world, we have just as much — if not more — to gain from younger mentors.

As keepwith founder Megan Burke Roudebush explains, “Defying conventional wisdom about mentorship is as important a step as any in strategic relationship building. It is critical that we acknowledge the essential role that mentors play in all stages of our journeys, that we are open-minded about who we consider our mentors and mentees, and that we focus more on the quality of the insights and the relationship’s potential than on our mentors’ age.”

To remain open as a leader is one of the most satisfying and difficult challenges you face. One of the many ways to do this is to cultivate a mentoring relationship with a younger person. Put this on your list of career goals for 2023. You won’t regret it.

Previously published on Forbes