Mentoring remains the most effective mode of knowledge transfer from older professionals to younger generations.
As the last contingent of baby boomers prepare to retire, many firms are struggling to transfer the knowledge that baby boomers have developed over decades-long careers to younger employees. While authoring training material or developing detailed procedures may succeed in preserving this knowledge, mentoring remains the most effective mode of knowledge transfer from older professionals to younger professionals. However, many firms continue to struggle in establishing and maintaining a mentoring culture. This article seeks to offer some advice from our firm on developing and maintaining a culture of mentoring that can facilitate this critical transfer of knowledge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a good mentoring culture begins with supporting mentors and recognizing their efforts. Firm leadership needs to acknowledge the time commitments that mentoring involves, both ensuring that mentors are afforded time in their regular schedules to coach younger staff and recognizing that some performance-based metrics (e.g., billable ratios) do not effectively measure mentors’ contributions to the success of the firm. Firms need to get comfortable losing money on some projects when training younger engineers to allow them to develop under real world circumstances. While there may be short-term losses on projects, the long-term gains of developing a competent workforce are significantly larger. Firms should never be afraid to spend time and money training people due to the possibility that they may leave. A progressive firm that invests in its employees’ development is a firm that should not struggle to attract and retain talent.
Some companies use formal mentoring programs with assigned mentors, set times where mentoring occurs, and sometimes even set curricula for mentoring. At BASE, we have found that younger generations are naturally inquisitive and actively seek out mentoring, thus diminishing the need for a formal program to drive mentorship. Without the formal program, we are able to follow a more organic approach and allow younger employees to gravitate to different mentors for different reasons, whether that’s personal preference or the natural tendency for mentors to have different areas of expertise. This approach also allows mentors to emerge naturally as long as they have the inclination and are supported by firm leadership in doing so. In an environment where they can connect naturally, mentorship will happen on a regular basis just through day-to-day conversation. Some of the best mentoring at BASE occurs during impromptu shared lunches, breaks, and downtime.
Another key aspect in establishing a mentoring culture is maintaining a healthy team environment built around trust. Mentoring is founded on trust, with mentees trusting that the information mentors communicate is complete and truthful and mentors trusting that mentees will not play politics with either the information they receive or the relationships they develop. Successful mentoring without trust is impossible. Without trust, potential mentors hold on to information to avoid losing their standing and mentees may withhold questions that they perceive to be foolish or elementary and will be distrustful of information they do receive.
Finally, mentors should not forget soft skills. It is important that firm leaders teach younger employees the business side of their profession. Communication, project management, contract review, insurance, licensing, proposal writing, fee development, business development, marketing, and other topics that dominate firm leadership’s time are excellent topics for discussion. Covering these topics not only trains future leaders for the business but also prevents mentoring from straying too far into the technical realm and reassures young employees of senior leaders’ contributions to the firm, that they are not just reaping the rewards for younger employees’ efforts. Personal skills are also good topics. Well-rounded and happy people make good employees. Don’t be afraid to coach on financial literacy, saving for retirement, mental wellness, organization, and other topics relevant to promoting employees’ wellbeing outside of the workplace. Firms should just take care to ensure that mentors are competent to discuss these topics and that mentors are aware of topics that need to remain off limits for human resources, legal, political, or other reasons.
By establishing and maintaining a strong culture of mentoring, firms can ensure knowledge is transferred to younger generations and not lost to employee turnover while naturally developing future leaders from within.