March 16, 2018

The Next Generation May Not Want Your Mentoring | Leading from the Library

If you are a librarian and seek a mentor, you can get one. Our profession has no dearth of formal programs, and we even create opportunities that facilitate informal relationships. So far it has worked well, but as millennials enter the library workforce it may present a new challenge for library leaders.

For the generation of librarians that currently hold positions of library leadership, mentoring likely played an important role in their careers and in motivating them to opt for the administrative path. In leadership workshops, in the library literature, and at association meetings, we will often hear our colleagues sing the praises of a particular mentor who helped them develop professionally and played a role in influencing and supporting their career track. We tend to find our mentors in one of two ways, formal or informal. Formal mentoring opportunities are available through the American Library Association (ALA), its divisions, state library associations, regional or local member organizations, and others. For example, when I became a new library director, I joined the College Library Directors program offered through the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL). In addition to an educational program, each participant is assigned a mentor. Mentoring programs can effectively serve both new-to-the-profession librarians and those adopting a new leadership challenge. No matter what level of leadership responsibility we’ve acquired in our careers, it is likely a relationship with an experienced colleague—not always a senior one—can help in the pursuit of better leadership. That’s why the popularity of mentoring programs continues. At least for most generations. For millennials, the chain may break.

Are They Worth It?

Most individuals will tell you they did benefit from a mentoring relationship. Not all deliver on the desired outcomes. Some work better than others. It’s usually the formal mentoring relationships that either fizzle out or never worked well to start. In my case, it just fizzled. I appreciated my mentor’s support, but after two years I was secure enough to break free. The same pattern applied again a few years later, but this time I was the mentor. Same outcome. After two years, we fizzled out, and the mentee was just fine. I’ve also experienced a few informal mentoring relationships, as both mentor and mentee. These happen more holistically, sometimes in the workplace but not always. Informal mentoring relationships, for me and perhaps others, given that they develop out of a more natural friendship, seem to lead to a longer-term bond. It can even happen randomly. I met a colleague in the audience at a presentation, and some chit-chat about our common interests led to a long partnership in which the mentoring is largely helping each other to build strengths and take on new challenges; partnering makes taking risks a bit easier. As a result, we’ve both grown as leaders, but we’re also still working to learn more about being better leaders. So there’s no limit to the ways mentoring relationships can develop, nor to the ways they can help both mentor and mentee to grow professionally. Formal mentoring programs can certainly work for some participants, and how well they succeed may depend on the thought, planning, and support that go into their development. (The research tends to support my experience with formal and informal relationships.)

That’s So Mad Men

As we’ve learned from all the research into their behaviors, millennials are different. Some say they even learn differently, though that’s the subject of debate. Whether it’s owing to their digital native status, how they manage their careers, or their proclivity to sharing information on networks, what worked for past generations may hold less interest for millennials. As a library leader, your staff’s professional development is partly your responsibility. That may include some formal or informal mentoring, whether you do it yourself, assign someone to it, or encourage it to happen more holistically. When it comes to millennials though, library leaders may need to learn some new techniques and strategies for giving them a mentoring experience—or something resembling mentoring. According to the article, “The Misery of Mentoring Millennials” by Marina Khidekel, when it comes to mentoring this new generation of professionals, our traditional approaches are “as old-fashioned as a three-martini lunch.” The concept of having a single person with whom you build a relationship for career advice and advancement is foreign to millennials. It is a poor fit for their connected lifestyle. Leaders who seek to engage their millennial colleagues with mentoring will need some fresh ideas.

Looking for a Sponsor

If the coming generation of millennial workers has no interest in traditional mentoring, what exactly is it they do want that will help them build successful careers? Mentoring should operate more like their social network relationships. Keep it short, informal, and available from a mix of contacts. In other words, our millennial co-workers are more likely to avoid deep, close, personal one-one mentoring like the kind you found so useful in your own career growth. Khidekel’s article suggests some strategies for new approach to mentoring:

  • Peer-Mentoring: instead of connecting your newer colleague to one other person, connect him or her to a small group of peers who can offer a range of advice rather than just a single perspective.
  • Reverse Mentoring: improve the connections by having the newer-to-the-workplace staff mentor their senior colleagues on new technologies; mentoring need not always be from older to younger.
  • Speed Mentoring: like speed dating, those who are in need of mentoring can quickly meet up with potential mentors to gather advice, ideas, and business cards; if needed, later more in depth information can be sought.

These alternates provide a look into the sort of mentoring that might work for millennials. Nothing too personal or time consuming—and multiple sources are appreciated. If they do seek something beyond these more superficial approaches, what millennials might want is not so much a mentor as a “sponsor.” That role is less about advice and more about career advancement. In the business world, a sponsor helps their “underling” achieve desired goals in the least amount of time possible. For those just starting out, having a sponsor sounds like a great idea. How well it fits in with the world of librarianship is less clear to me.

Rethinking Our Mentoring

Not all that long ago, as librarians, we were focused on figuring out how to understand millennial generation students so that we could improve the quality of our services to them, particularly in the academic library sector. For example, as an instructor, what learning techniques might work best with students who were less patient or more likely to respond to learning with technology? As library leaders we now turn our attention to the prospect of more millennials entering our workplace. If what Khidekel’s article has to say about the misery of mentoring millennials in the world of business accurately transfers to millennials entering the world of librarianship, I suspect the senior generation, those who typically serve as mentors, could face a difficult time adjusting to the needs of a new generation of mentees.

Based on personal observations, I suspect that millennials are more likely to get from their peers what previous generations sought from senior colleagues. Perhaps what might work best, rather than one-on-one relationships, are broader networks of mentors who are available for shorter, less personalized support. This might appeal more to millennials and allow them to get professional help as they need it throughout the developmental stages of their careers. I’m uncertain about how exactly that would work, and perhaps the only way to improve mentoring for our millennial colleagues is to engage in conversation about the changing nature of mentoring in librarianship. Mentoring still holds value for both the novice and experienced library professional. As leaders, we have a responsibility to bring along new generations of library workers, so that our organizations are well prepared to face challenges of the future. Mentoring is a time-tested practice for facilitating leadership development. Library leaders must adopt new techniques, and perhaps a new mindset, to learn how to best apply what worked well in the past to new colleagues and the future they hold for our profession.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. As a millennial, I’ll agree I’m particular about mentors. Traditional mentorship programs have been hit or miss for me — it’s hard to find someone with the same interests and views of the profession when someone else is doing the choosing for you. There’s nothing worse than having a “mentor” who is not invested in the future of the profession or the area in which you specialize.

    I’ve had much better luck building these types of relationships through networking. It’s more likely to be a mutual “fit” and be an ongoing partnership, rather than a single conversation, and allows me to have more a support network (which, yes, includes peers and even people outside of the profession) than the traditional one-to-one idea of mentorship.

  2. At our library, we have staff members work in teams of shared responsibility, and most librarians are on more than one team – reference, programs, PR, collections, and outreach. In teams, new librarians are grouped with more experienced librarians, so the mentoring comes as part of the work, and mentoring does go in more than one direction as new librarians bring different skill sets to the table. Additionally, every team has a leader who is experienced (especially in our library’s culture), and we operate under a philosophy of bottom-up management, which means the team leader supports the team rather than directs the team. So it’s informal in that you are not tied to any one individual as a mentor, but it’s formal in that teams are constructed according to people’s strengths and interests. Teams are also somewhat fluid, so relationships that are unproductive can be shifted around as needed. We also watch for working relationships that “click” and try to provide opportunities for those people to work together more often.

  3. Joneser says:

    In my day, you had to wait your turn and be “anointed”. Only then did they give you the formal mentorship opportunities. Our state lib assoc. set up such a program, several times – and as this article says, it didn’t succeed long-term. Now I take my cue from the young kids and get much more from my informal mentoring and other such activiaties.

    We also have “teams”, but they’re still ultimately top-down. Go figure.

  4. Joneser says:

    Great article, BTW – so on-point it almost draws blood.

  5. All of your options include good advice. I promote multi-generational mentoring, where all generations mentor each other. Everyone has some knowledge and experience to share with others.
    Generation Y has changed the rules of mentoring which includes who mentors whom and how mentoring is approached. I provide options for various approaches in my book The Reluctant Mentor.