Is a Millennial Mentor Worth the Hype?

It’s easy for someone to share their own experience as a millennial, but asking them to speak for the entire generation has many pitfalls.
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Businesses can greatly benefit from learning more about the millennial generation. (Photo: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock)

How do you get into the heads of the largest generation of consumers in the marketplace today? Some companies — including big names like Mastercard, Cisco Systems, Estée Lauder and HBO — are answering that question by hiring millennials to advise their executive teams.

For brands trying to connect with millennials and Gen Z, the latest trend has been to partner executives with a junior millennial employee or bring in a millennial as a consultant.

“One of the pop-culture hot topics is reversed mentoring or millennial mentoring — hiring millennials to consult about millennials,” Chuck Underwood, generational researcher and host of the PBS series “America’s Generations with Chuck Underwood,” told NCR Silver.

But could this reverse-mentorship model really help a business better engage with younger audiences? Underwood said it depends on the situation.

“There is absolutely a time and a place to have millennials mentor older executives, and there is absolutely a time and a place when millennials should never mentor older executives about the millennial generation. And knowing the distinction can be the difference between a company thriving or collapsing,” he said.

While he believes news outlets may be playing up the trend as bigger than it actually is, he agrees that businesses can greatly benefit from learning more about the millennial generation. Using millennial mentorship as a starting point, here’s his advice for how to properly leverage the model to be effective for your small business.

Related: 6 Ways to Find a Mentor to Help Your Business Succeed

Don’t place an unfair burden on a single millennial

It’s first critical to understand that, while a millennial can accurately share his or her personal experience as member of the generation, most struggle to distill down the experience of the entire millennial generation.

Underwood said the rise of the technology revolution during their formative years is the main factor contributing to this challenge.

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“If you want to understand a generation, the more members of that generation you can seat around a table to ask them questions or have them mentor you, the more likely you are to get a fair representation of that generation’s values.” -Chuck Underwood (Photo: Chuck Underwood)

The millennial generation is so unique that relying on the experience of one or two people in a cohort of more than 74 million is not enough for an organization to use in their actual strategies, he said.

“Don’t rely upon the mentorship only to understand millennials or it is likely to blow up in your face. The concept of generation is too complex for this kind of mentoring,” he said. “Don’t put on a millennial mentor an unfair burden. When you ask a single millennial a bunch of questions about her generation, she gives you her best effort and suddenly your products aren’t selling, you’re going to blame that millennial and think she was wrong. No, she wasn’t wrong, you just asked way too much of her.”

A much better approach, according to Underwood, would be to develop a formal focus group through a research company, led by an experienced moderator.

“If you want to understand a generation, the more members of that generation you can seat around a table to ask them questions or have them mentor you, the more likely you are to get a fair representation of that generation’s values. The fewer the number, the more dangerous the results of that session.”

Related: How (and Why) to Recruit Millennials for Your Small Business

Take a multi-generational approach

Rather than trying to isolate and silo the millennial generation only, Underwood said the key to understanding this segment of the market is to take a multi-generational approach.

“In order for you to understand the millennials, you need to understand your own generation and how it stands relative to the millennials. This relativity of one generation to the next is everything — especially in the workplace, but also in the marketplace — to understanding how each generation is different,” he said.

Focusing only on one generation creates a silo, he continued, “and unless you are only marketing to one generation, unless you are only hiring one generation, getting single-generation specific can get you in big trouble. Millennials need to understand Gen Xers and baby boomers. Gen Xers need to understand millennials and boomers, and boomers need to understand Gen Xers and millennials.”

Supplement with legitimate research

Underwood’s final piece of advice is to supplement the feedback from a millennial mentor or focus group with legitimate generational research.

“If you want to bring in a millennial mentor to speak for her or his entire generation, first of all understand the weaknesses in that method and then supplement it very inexpensively by reading a comprehensive, multi-generational book and legitimate research,” he said.

While there are a number of reputable research companies that can be hired to do in-depth studies based directly around your brand’s needs, such quality insights come at a price and may not be a feasible option for smaller companies.

“There’s a lot of fake news out there around millennials, so that’s a real danger.” -Chuck Underwood

“Thanks to technology, there is a lot of junk research floating around out there,” Underwood continued. “Small businesses need to acknowledge that, because they don’t have big research budgets or big marketing staffs, they are vulnerable to the junk generational content that is floating around out there in massive quantities.”

Related: Think You Know Your Customers? Do Some Customer Research to Make Sure

Because their research is free, he suggested the Pew Research Center as an affordable alternative for small businesses looking for credible, generational research.

“There’s a lot of fake news out there around millennials, so that’s a real danger,” he said. “The millennials have been so inaccurately and unfairly hit by pop-culture news media. They’re eager to learn, eager to please and have incredible volumes of charm. They want to save the world, so they probably will.”

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