Concurrents: The Power of Passing the Baton

Maria VanDeman

A recent study by the International Journal of Public Health highlighted the importance of “Grandparent Influence,” where grandchildren with involved grandparents show positive development, mental health, and overall well-being. Interestingly, the reverse is also true— grandparents experience a sense of purpose, health benefits and longevity from being surrounded by younger generations. With aging parents and young children of my own, I’ve been thinking about the critical role of knowledge sharing and mentorship, especially across different generations. If the “Grandparent Influence” is beneficial at home, a similar effect surely occurs at work. 

With the rise of hybrid and work-from-home models, there is the potential for a mentorship and information gap among generations, career stages, and colleagues.  Lack of physical proximity can hinder the spontaneous exchange of ideas and organic learning opportunities that often occur in traditional office settings. Many of my client offices are now mere skeletons of what they once were, with fewer staff each day and teammates often working opposing hours. I’ve heard firsthand from younger generations of their frustration with the lack of guidance and training. Isolation can cause people to ‘run the race’ alone in life and work.  We should ideally function like teammates in a relay race where we ‘pass the baton’ of experience to win and thrive.  

According to a survey by the American Society for Training and Development, 75% of executives say mentoring has been critical to their career development, which highlights the importance of work cultures that support employees throughout their career journeys.  At OFS, our DEI team, in collaboration with senior leadership, is working to pilot and launch a formal mentorship program to address employees’ desire for growth, training, and a stronger sense of belonging and inclusion.   

There is an obvious positive benefit to bridging gaps and fostering personal growth.  However, there are several challenges and misnomers when it comes to mentorship that we need to understand and combat:   

Generational differences can be a challenge.     

Differences in communication styles, values, tech competency, and work preferences between generations can make it difficult to relate to someone in a different life stage or experience.  Stereotypes about each generation can exacerbate these difficulties, causing frustration or annoyance (they’re asking me how to send an email again?! Where did their work ethic go?!). 

Breaking down these stereotypes requires intentionality to empathize and build trust across generations.  In my experience, many younger workers are savvy, fun, and thirsty for guidance and leadership as long as it comes from a trusted and reliable source.  At a recent sales retreat, I was inspired by leaders of all generations, especially older peers who emphasized the value of hand-written notes, personal gestures, and the importance of a lifelong network being critical to their success. One gentleman stressed the importance of staying relevant by constantly experimenting with new ideas and continual learning. 

Despite the potential challenge of generational differences, there is much to gain from those in different life and career stages.  Find yourself a new friend or two! 

The role of a mentor is often misunderstood.   

When you hear “mentor”, you might think of a single heroic figure who guides you throughout your lifetime.  Sorry to break it to you, but your mentor likely won’t be the LeBron James or Oprah Winfrey of your industry.  For me, mentors are a medley of individuals who offer different areas of expertise in different seasons.  One person may be best equipped to give people-management or technical advice, while another person excels in work-life balance or navigating career advancement.  A mentor is a trusted advisor who can help to teach and guide you – but discernment is essential in deciding what to learn from each person.  Seek out a diverse group of people who you respect in different areas (and you don’t even need to label them ‘mentors’!). 

Everyone wants a mentor, but few have the capacity to be mentors.  

As you elevate in your career, more constraints on time and capacity between family, workload, and schedules appear.  Mid-career managers, with their experience and industry knowledge, are ideal to mentor younger workers. These same people also seek their own community support while sometimes feeling stuck between people and policy.  This reluctance to mentor creates a gap where the demand for mentorship exceeds the willingness to supply it, highlighting the need for a cultural shift that values and encourages mentors.   

Mentoring is about finding daily opportunities to share and teach that will have a lasting impact on a person or profession you care about.  For me, that looks like picking up the phone even when I’m busy, or replying to an acquaintance who boldly reached out for advice.  Everyone needs guidance and support, but we must also be willing to sacrifice the same. Make space to share your time and wisdom! 

Mentorship is not just about individual growth but about creating a thriving, interconnected work environment. By combating challenges and embracing the roles of both mentor and mentee across generations and cultures, we cultivate a system of learning and support for everyone.  Just as the “Grandparent influence” enriches both the young and old in families, workplace mentorship can create a vibrant, supportive culture where everyone wins, one baton pass at a time.

Maria VanDeman, NCIDQ, IIDA, is an accomplished workplace advisor at OFS, interior designer, published children’s book author and advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.  With a passion for helping people and designing for human needs, Maria strives to make a positive impact on the world through her work and mentorship.  Connect with Maria on LinkedIn.