It Takes Two to Tango to Truly Mentor

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Eliminate multi-generational barriers in your product team through 2-way mentoring

In the war for the best product talent at the moment, there’s an opportunity for product leaders to weaponise their product teams to build the most competitive products through multi-generational diversity.

Do you have a thriving multi-generational product team?

We know that diverse and inclusive teams are smarter. The greater the team’s joint intellectual potential you have through diversity, the more likely you’re able to keep your team members’ bias in check and make them question their assumptions. This is particularly important in building out successful products that meet your customers’ needs and ensure inclusive customer experiences.

One of the most overlooked diversity and inclusiveness areas of the workforce is age diversity.  The Australian Human Rights Commission has found that ageism remains the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia, with 63% of people having experienced ageism in the last five years.  Depending on age, this can be experienced differently – but is common for younger and older workers.

Professionals early in their careers (18-39) are most likely to experience ageism as being condescended to or ignored, particularly at work. Middle-aged people (40-61) are most likely to experience ageism as being turned down for a job.

From traditionalists, to boomers to Gen Z, there are now as many as 5 generations to be found in any workplace. Great product leaders who have already reaped the benefits of a diverse product team can bridge the multi-generational gaps within their team by shifting their attitudes towards each other. By watching for subtle cues, a product leader might notice that younger people are inadvertently making their older colleagues feel obsolete in a fast-paced tech world. Equally, more experienced workers may be condescending towards their younger colleagues and openly subvert their work or show personal disrespect. 

Bridging the multi-generational gap in product teams

An effective way of strengthening the power of a multi-generational product team is through 2-way mentoring – also known as ‘mutual mentoring’, ‘reverse mentoring’ or ‘menterning’. 

50+ year old Chip Conley has publicly shared his experiences as being the in-house mentor for the Millennial co-founders and tech workforce at Airbnb. As a well-respected hospitality industry leader who has provided wisdom and emotional intelligence to his younger tech leader colleagues, he’s gained insights into how to effectively scale up a leading global digital business.

He’s consequently reinvented himself as the author of best-selling book Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder and as the founder of the first of its kind mid-life wisdom school, helping to retrain older people to shift mindsets and improve their resilience and adaptability to a changing workplace.

Establishing a 2-way mentoring program will provide Millennial product managers with the transparency and recognition that they’re seeking from management, leading to higher levels of retention in this cohort. With the demand for data literate professionals, product teams benefit from Digital Natives’ lived experience and digital literacy whilst connecting them with a reverse mentor who can nurture their other areas of development. 

2-way mentoring can help eliminate the grey ceiling in your product team

Well-matched 2-way mentor relationships help you retain valuable older product managers facing the ‘grey ceiling’ in your organisation where there are fewer roles above middle management and there’s also a cap to pay grades.  

By offering varied product management career paths within your business other than the straight product people leadership track, your business can gain better product outcomes from their wisdom of lived experiences, deep customer empathy and stakeholder skills. Younger product managers can exchange their digital intelligence with their older peers’ product leadership and/or tap into their industry experience.

By supporting your best product managers to establish diverse 2-way mentor relationships within your business and outside, they are more likely to be more engaged with their work as they hone their craft whilst contributing to the career growth of other product managers.

Mutual mentors can end up being long term trusted advisors well beyond working together. 

Nick Wodzinski, Product Manager from Mastt, speaks warmly of Camilo Potocnjak Oxman, his mutual mentor of 8 years+ who was his undergraduate lecturer. Outside of uni, they got to know each other better as they crossed paths at crowd-funding social entrepreneurial events.

Not only did Nick end up learning more from his mentor about design thinking, but he had the opportunity to enhance one of his lecturer’s courses as a tutor. He was able to share his knowledge of financial modelling with his lecturer. By forging a deeper relationship and sharing of their areas of expertise and ideas with each other, they have ended up supporting each other throughout the most challenging moments of their professional lives.

Benefits of mutual mentorship for product managers

Having diverse networks within your business, industry and outside ensures that you’re very clear on what your value is to others. A 2-way mentorship program that links different experiences, knowledge and perspectives gives both parties benefits. On the one hand, the traditional mentor offers expert knowledge and opens up connections from experience to youth.

By being open to mentoring in the reverse direction in the same relationship, the younger generation can offer new learnings in resilience, digital literacy and stakeholder management. The benefit to the company will soon become apparent as the experienced leader regains connection with the world outside the boardroom, and the younger generation will, in turn, contribute more to the business because they feel valued and respected. 

In a competitive recruitment environment, the difference between retention and resignation may be as simple as encouraging more internal connections from 2-way mentoring relationships.  

If you don’t have an established 2-way mentor program, sign your product team up to join the Association of Product Professionals.

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky

Natalie Yan-Chatonsky | Author

Nat is our resident dreamer, who loves to wax lyrical on better ways of creating companies, culture and award-winning products. Nat has been working in Product since 1999, across various stages of the product lifecycle, including new product development and growing existing products and services. She worked at IBM and Yahoo! in the early days of digital, and has worked alongside numerous brands, including Cochlear, Fairfax Digital, and News Ltd. More recently she worked on the rollout of the New Payments Platform (NPP) and applies product management practices to her startup. Nat is expert at gathering customer insights and facilitating teams to generate product ideas from those customer insights. She loves helping build things that links the unmet needs of customers with design and business capability to create value, and make a positive difference in the world. When not consulting with clients, Nat loves rolling out her yoga mat or rolling on the Brazilian Jiujitsu mats.

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