CASE STUDY-ISSUES IN LEADERSHIP-Generation Gap: Mentor and Protégés

As a generation of baby boomers nears retirement, many are mentoring their future replacements, Generation Xers. Some boomers have found the process difficult. William Slater, a 47-year old computer engineer who participates in his company’s formal mentoring program, has had negative experiences with three protégés. He recalls that one tried, unsuccessfully, to take his job, while another repeatedly spoke badly about him behind his back to his boss. “I have an axe to grind with Generation X. They’re stabbing aging baby boomers in the back,” says Slater.


It is not only baby boomers who have had bad experiences. Joel Bershok, a 24-year old, was optimistic about the prospects of having a mentor. However, his mentor dissolved the relationship after only three weeks. Says Bershok, “He just wanted it for his resume.”To Bershok, one of the major problems with mentoring relationships is a lack of trust. With an uncertain economy and companies making frequent layoff announcements, boomers are wary of teaching their younger counterparts too much for fear that those counterparts, who usually make less – and so cost the company less than boomers – may replace them.


The fear may be justified. For example, Janet Wheeler, a 49-year old broker, saw her job replaced by two younger workers after she was let go by her company. Wheeler thinks that other boomers are beginning to notice the risks of mentoring and are responding by not teaching their protégés as much as they could. “You see young people being brought along just enough to get the job done, but not so much that they’ll take your job,” she states.


Given that some studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of mentoring on employee outcomes such as performance, job satisfaction, and employee retention, many are concerned that baby boomers are failing to see mentoring as a responsibility. According to a study by Menttium Corporation, a firm that aids companies in installing mentoring programs, almost 90% of formal mentoring relationships are eventually terminated. The primary reasons include poor matching of mentors to protégés and a lack of effort to keep the relationship going.


But some workers have strongly benefited from mentoring programs and are trying to maintain mentoring programs in their companies. Three years after joining Dell, Lynn Tyson, 41, helped start a formal mentoring program open to all of Dell’s 42,000 employees. “I never had a formal mentor in my entire career. Most of the time I was shaking in my shoes,” says Tyson. Her program has been successful thus far, and she herself has 40 protégés. “I’m not trying to make this sound sappy, but I have the ability to make a difference in somebody’s career, and that excites me every day.” The benefits are especially apparent for women and minorities, who historically have had greater difficulty climbing to the upper ranks. According to a study by HarvardUniversity professor David A. Thomas, the most successful racial minorities at three different corporations had a strong network of mentors. Additionally, research as shown that women also benefit from having positive mentoring experiences in that they have greater career success and career satisfaction.


With the right amount of effort, protégés, mentors, and the companies that sponsor such relationships can realize tremendous benefits. However, individuals in mentoring relationships may need to look past generational and other individual differences to achieve such benefits. Though Slater has had his share of bad mentoring experiences, he is still optimistic. “Mentoring is a time-honoured concept. Those of us who’ve been mentored should mentor others. Otherwise, we’ve short-circuited the process and the future,” he says.


Discussion Questions


Facilitate a group discussion around the following questions:


  1. What factors do you believe lead to successful mentoring programs? If you were designing a mentoring program, what might it look like?
  2. In what ways might a protégé benefit from having a mentor? In what ways might a mentor benefit from having a protégé?
  3. Of the three types of trust discussed in Chapter (deterrence-based, knowledge-based, identification-based), which may be the primary type involved in mentoring relationships and why?
  4. What types of leaders, in terms of personality traits and behavioral tendencies, would most likely be good mentors? What types of leaders might be poor mentors?

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