the benefits of reciprocal mentorship: be good to the kids, you need them

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There’s a reason for the peonies, I assure you.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was kind of an asshole. It was 2009, and I’d just accepted a role in an agency after a career on the brand side, a career dominated by companies that recycled old ideas and were frightened of progress, so much so that the state of stagnation had become tragically ubiquitous. I wanted velocity and risk after years of being methodic and measured. Up until 2009 it had been rare for me to work with people who were younger than me unless they were interns or assistants. Most of my coworkers were older and their most beloved word was no. As in, no, this can’t be done. As in, no, who else has done it, first? As in, no, we’ve always done it this way, so why try something new? It became such that I wanted to staple things to their heads and bang my head against my desk while pleading for progress.

After a career of being the youngest person in the room, I was excited about being one of the OLDS. I was proud of my tenure and believed I had a thing or two to teach the youngsters who’d taken up residence on my lawn. Little did I know that after a career working for people who believed that one spent decades paying their dues, and junior employees didn’t speak until spoken to, that I would adopt this dangerous way of thinking. I’d come to this new role with a five-piece luggage set of baggage. While I was initially excited to work with kids in their 20s, I quickly became astonished. Are you telling me you want a pay raise and a title change after 2 years while I waited FIVE YEARS to be promoted to manager? How do you not see the benefits of slaving over excel sheets and doing those staid, repetitive tasks because I had to endure daily paper cuts filing papers in cabinets back when one used paper–a time when everyone used a fax machine.

You want purpose, mentorship, and a clear path for advancement? Surely, you jest.

For a time, I grumbled with the OLDS I once admonished. Who do these kids think they are? They’re in diapers and they want to run companies and enjoy their work? My generation never enjoyed their work, rather we were told that work afforded you money for the life you were supposed to have: kids, the car, the house and the fence–all aging remnants, an eyesore from a generation where women swallowed voice and served frozen dinners to the men who came home from the office secretly frightened that the best they could ever be was second-rate. I never wanted that life and here I was clinging to it. Here I was telling people who wanted progress! change! to swallow their voice. To speak unless spoken to.

It took a few years to undo the damage inflicted by my previous generation, and when I left the fancy job it occurred to me that I had much to learn from those who were younger than me. Never would anyone in my generation leave a good job for uncertainty. We would never be consultants. We would never pursue a life of purpose and professional fulfillment. We took what was given and swallowed our medicine with tepid glee, like the good children we were raised to be.

Why not design a life you want to live since we have so few years in this life to live? Why not buck complacency? Why not question that which has always been done? Why not view failure as a means of inevitable success?

Now, the great majority of my friends are under 30. And I’ve so much to learn. When I first left my job years ago and considered going back to full-time, a friend suggested that I stay the course and go out on my own. What’s the worse that can happen? You try and fail? So then you know. A few weeks ago, my friend Jenna gave me a refresher course on the more sophisticated ways one could target consumers on Facebook. She spent an hour of her time on Skype answering all my dumb questions. My other friend Jennifer, an insanely smart and passionate marketer who once reported to me, patiently showed me how to use Snapchat. This may all seem small, insignificant, but I owe much of my success to the fact that I’m humble enough to learn what I do know. I’ve become smart enough to see the value in reciprocal mentorship, the hey, I’ll teach you how to lead teams and grow a business and you’ll explain every nuance of every new technology and how people are shopping today. You’ll inspire me to want more, to question everything and think differently. This is what has kept me fresh and competitive while some of my peers continue to struggle.

I really hate the sound of my own voice. 

For every project I take on, I usually partner with a subcontractor, and it’s rarely a peer. Granted, I’ll punt things with one of my two mentors. I’ll gut-check a strategy or an approach with those who’ve done what I’m trying to do before and have done it successfully. However, I have SO MUCH FUN with smart people who are younger than me. I’m working with my friend Jennifer on a beauty project and we spend a few hours each Friday (or Saturday) brainstorming ideas, staging photo shoots (like the peonies business above), and talking about trends, and I always leave those afternoons smarter and inspired.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years, it’s this: be good to people. Not because you never know if they’ll be your boss, client, or a decision maker, but because you should want to be a good human. Being humble and receptive to learning from the younger set has made me smarter, kind and patient, and nearly all of my projects this year have come as a result of referrals from my millennial friends.

I loathe the word expert because I firmly believe that one is constantly a student and a teacher. We always have more to learn, and the more you open yourself up to alternative sources of knowledge, the more you grow professionally and personally.

And you end up taking really nice snaps of your client’s product for social media. So there’s that.

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