Leadership Next: Mentoring and Discipling Gen X and Gen Y

Leadership Next: Mentoring and Discipling Gen X and Gen Y

6.4 min read

Lisa R. Fournier

“This is boring,” Ty muttered as he sat through yet another management training session. “I could be showing my new team member, Jeff, how to do the social networking piece of our project,” he mused. Happily ignoring the trainer, Ty thought, “Now THAT would help the company, not to mention Jeff. And, I want to learn that new technology—this session needs to hurry up and end.”

The 1980’s brought about radical organizational transformation. According to Breda Bova, Associate Dean, University of New Mexico, and Consultant Michael Kroth, the traditional organizations our fathers worked for were going “haywire with corporate downsizing and massive layoffs.” Careers began to transition from working a lifelong job in one establishment to continuously changing jobs to learn new skills. Due to this fundamental change, some organizations today are at a loss for how to retain and develop top talent for taking over the business. Succession planning is definitely impacted by this seismic organizational shift.

Succession planning in today’s organizations includes retaining and developing the next generational leaders—Generation X and Generation Y. Gen X and Gen Y pose unique challenges for organizations’ older generational leaders: they ask questions; remain independent; and readily change jobs for personal and professional skills development. Richard Sayers, Director at CABAL Human Resources Group, believes they act as free agents characterized by a desire to have a “portable career…and even greater degrees of personal flexibility, professional satisfaction and immediacy.” If organizations acknowledge these characterizations, there is an opportunity for retaining and developing this next set of knowledgeable leaders by offering access to credible sources who know relevant information.

Many Gen X and Gen Y’s are technology-adept individuals who live and breathe constant access to global and cultural information. They are interested in accessing people, whether leaders, peers, subordinates, gurus, or techno geeks, to learn and apply new and relevant information that advances their skills and knowledge base. According to Sayers, they are “motivated by a desire to enhance professional skills and thus marketability to future employers.” It is an ongoing learning process known as “continuous learning”—a motivator and way of life for Gen X and Gen Y.

For an organization, cultivating a continuous learning environment in order to develop the next generational leaders includes designing programs that embrace both appropriate learning styles and accessibility to leaders in the organization.

There are three types of applicable learning styles according to Bova and Kroth:

1) Action learning: Learning by doing;

2) Incidental learning: Spontaneous learning with no specific outcomes; and,

3) Formal training: learning in a classroom setting.

For Gen X and Gen Y, action learning is attractive because it deals with real problems and solutions and implementing actions. Incidental learning is also powerful due to some of the possible outcomes of “increased competence, increased self-knowledge, and improved life skills” as noted by learning theorist Craig Mealman. However, formal training is not as attractive to Leadership Next because of their time and space orientation.

Cultivating a continuous learning environment for Leadership Next also requires accessibility to leaders in the organization—people who know information, have applicable job skills and portray leadership traits. As mentors, teachers and even “disciplors,” these are leaders with the ability to transfer leadership learning to Gen X and Gen Y. According to author Chip Bell, mentoring is “a process where one person helps another become successful by providing understanding of the informal systems involved in an organization. Mentoring is not about power, it’s about learning.” Shelly Cunningham from the Talbot School of Theology defines discipling as “the process of following another person or way of life while submitting to the group leaders’ discipline; also the adoption of the philosophies, practices, and ways of life of the teacher.”

Why would Leadership Next agree to mentoring and discipling in a leader-follower context?

They may not, unless today’s leaders mentor and disciple based on action and incidental learning techniques. If leaders apply innovative learning techniques and provide relevant skills training, Generation Next may very likely be enticed to stay and build their professional repertoire. If leaders do it right, protégés will carry on the organization’s legacy. David Clutterbuck, mentoring consultant, suggests a sponsorship approach; “The modern version of a sponsor is an informed senior manager, who takes on the long-term responsibility for balancing the career needs of talented individuals against the evolving needs of the business.”

How do you start a Mentoring and Discipling Program?


Do not be “mind-boggled” with the amount of knowledge your protégé knows and can instantly access. Keep an open mind, value what they know, but challenge their thinking. As confident as they appear due to facts, introducing inter-personal or real-world scenarios helps them expand their horizons and value new insights. Michael Shenkman, Founder of the Arch of Leadership, suggests “a mentor has to be willing to risk the hurt, the insult, even the parting of ways in order to bring to prominence the kinds of attitudes and orientations that go into creative leading.”

Develop the plan together and provide a network of experienced leaders:

They know what they want; they don’t always know what they don’t know. Gen X and Gen Y like collaboration, transparency and openness. Plan together, and make the plan relevant, personalized, challenging, and rewarding. Stand in the gap between what they need to know and who they need to get it from by having a network of mentors or senior leaders available for introductions as needed. With these introductions, be prepared to transition your protégé to the next mentor or “disciplor” as they soak up leadership knowledge and experience. As Shenkman says, “the mentor lets the protégé experience the full force of leading, even to the point of failure.”

Create an innovative learning experience:

  • Try e-Mentoring: e-Mentoring provides tools and technology to help bridge the relationship between mentors and mentorees in distant locations. Search on “e-Mentoring” and several website links are returned targeting specific industries or age groups. According to Sayer, Gen X and Gen Y “want the flexibility and freedom to access professional development on their terms; when and where they require it.”
  • Build a virtual community: Gen-X and Gen-Y live in a virtual world and community acceptance is important.  Developing a virtual community for your organization could be a “learning incubator” for new protégés. Think about allowing a team of Gen-X and Gen-Y’s to work with advisors and subject matter experts to design and develop it. Klaus Nielson of the University of Aarhus in Denmark believes “collaborative learning…in the workplace plays a significant role in learning transfer.”
  • Think entrepreneurial: Get creative and be innovative by having the Gen X and Gen Y’s help develop a rotating internship program across the organization. Create discovery programs and social learning practices rich in media and knowledge. Bova & Kroth quote Davenport as saying “organizations are becoming increasingly sophisticated in creating and utilizing knowledge management repositories, supporting communities of practice, and facilitating the transfer of learning.”

Are you ready for Leadership Next?

About the author:

LISA R. FOURNIER is a doctoral student in the Doctor of Strategic Leadership (DSL) program with the School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Lisa, an entrepreneur and innovator with over 20 years of start-up experience, also works with Idea Evolutions LLC, a coaching and consulting company serving entrepreneurial leaders. Lisa’s email is lisafou@regent.edu

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