Generations can teach each other - if given the chance

A young colleague recently recounted an experience he had as a junior AE at a leading PR firm. He had worked at the agency for almost a year and by coincidence of arrival schedules often shared a morning elevator ride with one of the global practice leaders. The senior executive never spoke to him, rarely even acknowledging his presence.

A young colleague recently recounted an experience he had as a junior AE at a leading PR firm. He had worked at the agency for almost a year and by coincidence of arrival schedules often shared a morning elevator ride with one of the global practice leaders. The senior executive never spoke to him, rarely even acknowledging his presence.

On one occasion, the two attended the same brainstorming session for a new client. The young professional mostly listened to the discussion, but at one point decided to share his own observations about the issues being debated. His comments were measured but insightful. The group reaction was affirmative.

The next morning, he again encountered the senior executive on the elevator. This time the older person looked up, smiled, and said, "Good morning. By the way, I thought you made some excellent points in the meeting yesterday." The young man replied with a quick "Thanks" as the elevator doors opened and they were off to their respective busy days.

It was an enlightening moment; the junior executive realized that he could learn a great deal from his more seasoned colleague if only the opportunity presented itself. And maybe some of his own ideas could provide useful new perspectives for his elder associate.

In my observation, this is an area of opportunity that is sadly overlooked as we go about our daily routines. Those of us who have been practicing for 20-plus years have accumulated a wealth of diverse experiences that could provide incredible texture and dimension to those just entering the field. By the same token, the 20-somethings bring much to the table, from familiarity with current cultural trends to sensitivity about values and norms in the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Many firms and corporations have recognized the inherent value of promoting inter-generational mentoring in the workplace. Like many good ideas, this doesn't happen without encouragement and focus. If you don't believe this, just look at the cafeteria or other gathering places during and after hours. Generations tend to stick together, both on and off the field.

Formal mentoring programs needn't be complicated. They can be as simple as assigning a senior to a junior and encouraging a regular series of conversations. Once a relationship is established, the two-way knowledge sharing seems to take care of itself.

Those who are not yet working in corporations or agencies can derive even greater benefit from the wisdom, experience, and counsel offered by veterans in the profession. That's why many colleges and universities have tapped their alumni populations to find volunteers willing to serve as mentors or to provide placement opportunities for young interns.

We all share in the responsibility for helping younger practitioners find ways to broaden their knowledge by learning from our real-world experiences. All it takes is the willingness to share this wisdom with others and the commitment to spend the time needed to do so.

Something to ponder on your next elevator ride.

Tom Martin is an Executive-in-Residence, Department of Communication, The College of Charleston. He recently retired as SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries and can be reached at MartinTR@cofc.edu.

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