Empathy at Heart of Co-Mentoring Programs

Several years ago I worked at an online media production company whose aspirations unfortunately exceeded its budget. Nonetheless, I was eager to get more experience producing online video content.

I was assigned to work with Susan (her name has been changed), a millennial.

She seemed to be a real whiz with video equipment and knew her way around “Green Screen,” which is de rigueur for any video production studio. Nearly twice her age, I considered myself her student, eager to learn about the mechanizations of video and defer to her expertise.

Indeed, after shooting video in the field, she was very helpful during the editing process. She taught me a great deal about audio, pacing and myriad elements that go into creating quality video content.

However, she didn’t look upon our working relationships as a two-way street and my many years working professionally in the media didn’t seem to count for much. She was incurious about my background or how, heaven forbid, I might be able to teach her a thing or two about journalism or business communications.

She rarely made eye contact, seldom asked questions beyond the immediate work at hand or engaged in the kind of conversation that would help cultivate our relationship and/or find some commonalities despite our age difference. 

I would soon leave the company. But beforehand, my relationship with my “mentor” had deteriorated—and that was too bad. I was not her boss, nor she mine and our managers were too preoccupied trying to keep the lights on to try and ameliorate the situation.

I recalled this episode while absorbing the results from a recent survey Gould+Partners and ARPR released regarding millennials and non-millennial communicators.

Roughly a third of Boomer/Gen Xers working in PR said the toughest part about managing millennials is that they suffer from too much self entitlement and don’t have enough empathy, the survey said.

Lack of empathy—combined with lack of curiosity—was what doomed the relationship with my former colleague at the video production company.

She didn’t seem to possess much empathy, which reinforced my own biases about millennials suffering from an acute sense of self-entitlement. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

For PR firm owners and C-level executives eager to get their millennials and  non-millennials employees to work together more effectively, call my story a cautionary tale.

If millennial and non-millennial want to learn from each other, it will require a leap of faith and loss of bias from both sides of the table. 

Per the survey results, PR firms will also need to reappraise the role that empathy plays throughout the workplace; why it’s such a key ingredient for success and why managers who marginalize empathy do so at their own peril.

(In a recent series of magazine profiles, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella repeatedly touts the growing value of empathy throughout the workplace.)

Dedicated, living, breathing, co-mentoring programs could help facilitate true change. But PR firms are decidedly behind the eight ball: 93 percent of millennial agency employees say there is no formal mentoring program at their agencies, according to the survey.

PR firm owners need to codify co-mentoring programs and create ways for how to measure their success (or shortcomings).

For example, by having formal co-mentoring programs, Boomer and Gen X PR pros will be able to bolster the digital skills that millennials know so well (and are the future of PR). Alternatively, millennials get to learn about “emotional IQ” and other business skills that clients say millennials severely lack.

Without formal mentoring programs, negative suspicions between millennials and non-millennials will linger. PR firms that drag their feet in this area may start to lag behind those competitors who are more enlightened about how to bridge generational differences.

Millennials—the oldest of whom are now in their late 30s—are fast moving into the PR management ranks. They are the industry’s leaders-in-waiting. And yet they still are on a sharp learning curve about business skills that transcend algorithms and social platforms. 

At the same time, Boomers and Gen X PR pros are not going anywhere anytime soon. They have a great deal to offer to millennials, whether it’s thinking and speaking in paragraphs (rather than tweets or schematics) or bringing a wider breadth of knowledge, history and experience when crafting PR campaigns.

With the PR industry facing serious headwinds and heightened competition from advertising and marketing precincts, it is high time that millennials and non-millennials stop harping on their differences and star celebrating their similarities. The future of the industry depends on it.


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