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On Mentoring More Experienced Co-workers

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:00 AM

Hi Lily, my management considers me "very senior" and wants me to start mentoring "less senior" people on my team. I've been with the company for a year or two longer than my team members, and I'm apparently talented at what I do, but everyone else still has more job and life experience than I do--at least 10 years more than me. While most of my coworkers think I'm in my 30s, I'm only 25.

I don't want my management to think I'm incompetent or afraid of responsibility, so I don't want to point out that I'm actually the LEAST senior person (the work environment is very political, and I don't want any negative attention). I just feel like I still have so much to learn.

I'm signed up for some leadership training later this month, but I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on my situation. It's just kinda awkward to be told to "mentor" someone my mother's age, you know? Shouldn't they be mentoring ME?

I commend you, for not arrogantly assuming that you have something important to teach people who have at least ten more years of job and life experience. By the same token, I don't think that you should assume that your relative youth and inexperience automatically disqualify you from being able to mentor your coworkers.

Merriam-Webster defines the word "mentor" as, "a trusted counselor or guide." The word derives from the character Mentor, who was placed in charge of and advised the far younger Telemachus in Homer's Odyssey. Consistent with the etymology of the word, most of us understand mentoring to mean tutelage or coaching provided by a wise and experienced person to a more junior one. Formal mentoring programs in schools and workplaces are often driven by the needs and interests of the mentee and focus more heavily on orientation, advice, and networking than on training and the development of technical skills.

I think it is fair to say that, when mentoring is geared toward the general goal of promoting life or workplace success, then it is important that the mentor have greater overall experience that his or her mentee, which usually means that the mentor is older. There is definitely something to be said for the discernment that develops with time. And, as your situation perfectly illustrates, people are by nature more confident in the advice they can offer to those who are younger.

When mentoring focuses on an area of technical expertise, then age and experience matter a lot less than natural talent, intelligence, and skill. A person being mentored by a younger counterpart under such circumstances might at first be skeptical. If the mentor is capable and self-confident, however, these misgivings will soon fall away and the relationship can flourish.

You and your management team both recognize that you have a gift for what you do that has allowed you to perform at a level beyond your years of experience. It would be foolish for your organization not to somehow capitalize on your talents in the process of onboarding employees. I doubt that your managers are expecting you to provide mentoring or the sort that Telemachus enjoyed. What they probably want is for you to serve as the resident expert designated to answer the technical questions of new employees and, in the process, perhaps impart valuable insights that they had not considered.

In order for you to be able to effectively mentor new employees, however, your managers need to do more than proclaim it. They need to formalize the arrangement by letting new employees know that they should come to you with their issues. When people start to approach you with questions and you realize that you actually do have something to teach them, you will start to become more comfortable in your mentoring role. In time, you might find yourself offering more formal training to the team or developing processes and guides to help them in their work. As long as you focus on imparting what you know and don't dwell upon the things that you obviously don't know, you may find that mentoring comes quite naturally to you.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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