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The structure of mentorship has changed
Reliance on in-person interactions has promoted inequality for years.
I read an article a few weeks ago that was trying very hard to convince young professionals that they needed an office in order to have a successful career. The content was being properly roasted on LinkedIn by remote work advocates. It reeked of being written by someone who clearly thought remote work is inferior and/or had pressure from advertisers at the publication to push for in-office work.
Somehow, I managed not to bookmark it and when I tried to find the article again, I came across this gem:
The headline “Young workers will benefit from return to office, says boss” pretty much sums up the return-to-office champions. They’re bosses, not the people getting the work done.
Mentorship and opportunity are often the pro-office arguments: You can’t learn the job in the same way, you can’t network, and your career will suffer. I’ve even had someone tell me that the office is needed for non-work-related mentorship. He told me that a younger colleague had gotten into a fender bender on her way to the office and arrived shaken and unsure of what to do next. The self-appointed mentor — a generation older — was able to offer advice.
Well, first of all, the fender bender occurred during a commute to the office. And second of all, once the dust settled, I’m pretty sure the younger employee would have turned to Google and typed in, “What should I do after a fender bender?” Yet the person telling me this story was convinced that this example illustrated the benefits of the office.
For anything we think we gain from mentorship and opportunities in an office, we lose a lot more. And those gains aren’t evenly distributed.
In-person mentorship makes a lot of assumptions
Goldman Sachs ordered all employees to return to the office full time (and only half showed up), citing that the company’s operating model includes younger associates that learn from experienced bankers.
There are some problems with that type of mentor-mentee arrangement. It assumes that all people learn in the same way: via face-to-face, on-the-job interaction. Perhaps that’s what Goldman Sachs wants… to breed a culture of people who all think and act in the same way. But it sure doesn’t say a lot about the diversity of its workforce.
Classrooms have become much more adaptive over the years, as teachers recognize that children learn in different ways. When I was in school, the teacher stood at the front of the class, explained a concept, and students would practice on a worksheet. But teachers have realized that a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. Carol Ann Tomlinson, a professor at the University of Virginia, describes differentiated instruction as:
ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student's readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.
Of course, adults aren’t children. The recent graduates that Goldman Sachs hires have gone through four years of college instruction with, presumably, varying levels of professor effort to accommodate different learning styles.
But that doesn’t mean that companies should abandon the idea that learning is best when it is differentiated. A Gallup poll found that only 12% of new employees found that their organizations did a great job with onboarding and only 29% felt prepared to excel in their new jobs. Does that say something about the employee? Or the onboarding process?
I’ve worked in banking for more than two decades and I’m very familiar with the type of mentorship that Goldman Sachs thinks it needs. Moreso than other some other industries, banking is a field that favors the length of one’s experience. Older bankers pass on their knowledge to younger bankers and the cycle continues.
But banking is also facing a severe talent shortage, in part due to its clinging of outdated work models. McKinsey writes that banks need to build a scalable learning structure in order to build a better workforce — advice that would certainly be true for any industry facing a talent shortage.
Mentorship is no longer a top-down approach, but also includes adaptive learning, reskilling, encouraging mobility, and digital learning. Careers look less like ladder-climbing, and more like a portfolio of experiences.
Casual interactions do not build for the future
In-person mentorship reinforces other problems. It relies heavily on the interpersonal relationship between mentor and mentee — and also assumes that the mentor is a good teacher.
Tim Cook, chief executive at Apple, said that innovation comes from “bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.” Yet research doesn’t back this up: people who study the issue say that there’s no evidence that in-person interaction is essential for collaboration.
Teaching that is mostly facilitated through in-person interaction is likely to lead to a culture of learning that lacks documentation and standardization. It’s not hard to imagine that a crop of new interns has wildly different experiences based on their paring with a mentor and no internal resources to consult.
Are there nuances to learning that happen through observation? Absolutely. But there are ways to facilitate that type of mentorship that don’t involve an office environment. In fact, the “buddy-buddy” system can actually be detrimental for some employees — women in particular. A 2021 paper by economists Zoë Cullen and Ricardo Perez-Truglia, found that, “the advantages that come from socializing with the manager contribute significantly to the gender gap.”
In-person mentorship emphasizes presenteeism: If you’re here, you can get ahead.
It’s time to recognize the harm that is bred by over-reliance on in-person mentorship and find other ways to support the next generation of employees.
Today’s mentorship looks more like crowdsourcing
The top-down mentorship structure is disappearing in industries that change rapidly. When I pivoted from banking into content marketing, I was shocked to find marketers — a decade younger than myself — with vast amounts of knowledge and experience. Why? Because marketing is about innovation. Six months might be all that is needed to produce a killer campaign and see amazing results.
Software development is the same way. Some is gained from experience, but programming also requires rapid adaptation to new technology. What programmers use today may not have existed two or three years ago.
According to a 2022 survey by Deloitte, 29% of both Millennials and Gen Z want learning and development opportunities in their careers. They recognize the need for continuous education; stagnation is a sure path to career irrelevance.
As a result, the mentorship hierarchy is flattening. Loyalty to a single job is a thing of the past, with the median tenure of 4.1 years. And that’s data from the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics in 2020 — before The Great Resignation took hold. Mentorship is less likely to come from someone with more than a decade of experience at the company.
I’ll speculate that there’s a correlation between leaders who insist that in-person mentorship is necessary and those who cling to “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The reality is that mentorship can come from a variety of sources, including professional groups that exist outside of the office.
I’ll admit that when I left banking and embarked on a new career, I was a little unsettled. Suddenly my 20 years of experience meant nothing. I was used to the traditional structure where my career mentors were a generation older and taught based on decades of experience. Suddenly that was gone.
But I landed with a group of people who shared knowledge freely. Not only that, but they offered up varying opinions. There were zero attempts at a “one size fits all” approach — it was more like, “This is what worked for me. It might work for you, it might not.” I found this approach to learning to be refreshing. And I’m so grateful for the community of support I’ve found in my new career path.
In the News: Yelp CEO calls hybrid work “hell”
Local-scene recommendation app Yelp is reducing its office space and is doubling down on remote work. Co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman calls hybrid policies “the hell of half measures.”
It makes sense: workers want flexibility. Even those that may opt for an occasional change of scenery are a far cry from wanting mandated days in-office. Three days per week of a rigid schedule and two days per week of flexibility… who wants that?
An effective hybrid model would offer office space, but make its use truly optional.
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