IT leadership: 5 signs of a mentor with generational intelligence

The mentor-mentee relationship can be flexible and collaborative. Consider these characteristics of a successful mentor in today's multi-generational workplace
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If your workplace is like many, your co-workers represent four, and maybe even five, generations: There are Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers, all of whom are defined by the world events, personal experiences, and, yes, technology that shaped them.

On the surface, it would seem there’s plenty of opportunity for the more experienced employees to mentor those with less experience. And while that’s true, the opposite can be true as well. When it comes to mentoring, age and job title are irrelevant. Everyone has the potential to teach others and learn from others. You don’t have to be the CEO or the head of your IT department to mentor someone.

Instead, what’s required these days is generational intelligence, which means being aware of others’ experiences or worldviews, understanding their preferences, and using this information to adapt and better collaborate.

5 traits of an effective IT mentor

What do good IT mentors look like in this intergenerational world?

1. They are good listeners

This encompasses many skills. Among these are being a good active listener and being empathetic, which requires good emotional intelligence skills. Listening skills are important for both the mentor and the mentee.

2. They unblur the lines of communication

Different generations often have preferences about how they communicate, and a good mentor resists the temptation to dictate to others that things must be done the mentor’s way. For example, older generations – particularly Traditionalists, the youngest of whom were born in 1945 – prefer phone calls over text messages. Contrast this with the younger generations, particularly Millennials and Gen Zers, who are more comfortable with texting.

[ Want more leadership advice for the challenges of the new year? Read IT leadership: 4 tips on achieving your goals in 2022. ]

A willingness on either or both sides to adapt to the other can go a long way in making communications smoother.

It’s also worth noting that this communication gap is closing. According to the Pew Research Center, there has been significant technology adaptation by older generations in the past decade, including the use of smartphones and engagement in social media. While the numbers still lag between the older generations and the younger ones, things definitely are changing.

A willingness on either or both sides to adapt to the other can go a long way in making communications smoother.

3. They aren't hesitant to seek out mentors

Even the best mentors can look around and see someone within the organization they admire. Maybe it’s the way that person patiently explains IT issues to less tech-savvy employees in other departments. Maybe it’s their organizational skills. Those aiming to improve will approach that person and ask to occasionally spend time with them.

4. They check their ego at the door

They recognize there is more than one way to achieve goals, and that co-workers both older and younger have valuable ideas. Which person is the mentor and which is the mentee can be flexible, with both parties benefiting.

5. They confront and reject their biases

Regardless of which generation a person falls into, they may have preconceived notions about other generations. A young person may see the older generations as slow to adapt to change. Older employees may view younger generations as lazy or unmotivated.

Someone who wants to be the best possible mentor – or mentee – accepts that they may be wrong about these preconceived notions. They also understand that other generations have had different experiences, having come of age at different times under different circumstances with different technology, and that has affected how they do things.

Awareness of the life experiences that shape individuals is one more way those in IT can use generational intelligence to become better communicators, better colleagues, and ultimately, a better team within the organization.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation eBook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

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Carrie Root, author of The Other Soft Skill: How to Solve Workplace Challenges with Generational Intelligence, is the founder and CEO of Alpha UMi, an education consulting firm that develops professional-development curricula.

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