The Value of Young Mentors: What Today’s Leaders Can Learn from the Next Generation

Marshall University students sit in an academic building.

The next generation of employees entering the workforce brings enthusiasm, drive and agility born out of global disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and rapidly changing technological environment. Despite facing unprecedented challenges, young people today are continuously noted as maintaining a positive outlook on the world and striving to make a positive impact in hopes of creating a better future for all. Their life experiences and status as digital natives position these members of up-and-coming generations as great mentors. Who better to understand how to approach the future than those who will be living in it?

Masters of Navigating Disruption

Both millennials and Generation Z have been heavily influenced by cultural disruption and technological advancement. Gen Z, in particular, has faced a number of atypical challenges during formative years. For example, these individuals have dealt with interruptions to their education and the challenge of navigating life after graduation during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, Brad D. Smith acknowledged students’ struggles in his commencement speech for University of Virginia’s College at Wise and applauded how the pandemic pushed young people to develop three critical skills for success: adaptability, resilience and purpose. 

The next generation entering the workforce is also digitally conversant as they’ve grown up using modern technology. In general, younger people are more apt to embrace and use updated technology and processes. As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a pressing topic in business practices, Gen Z employees are positioned well to understand the complexities and possibilities of AI, integrating it into the business landscape effectively and ethically. 

As disruption has been a sustained theme for Gen Z, much of the new workforce has learned to be entrepreneurial and find solutions where they did not previously exist. Having an inner sense of enterprise and resourcefulness is an invaluable skill in both the workplace and life, as disruption and change remain the only dependable constant. 

How the Next Generation Mentors Leaders Today

It’s not uncommon for the term “mentor” to conjure a mental image of an individual who is older than one’s self, recognizing the individual’s larger count of life experiences. But there is value in shaking the mental bias and recognizing that young people also have a lot to offer. One can be a mentor regardless of age or years of work experience. 

As Brad D. Smith recently told members of his staff, “The best learning often doesn’t happen in a lecture, it happens from experience.” Although some young prospective employees may not have a lengthy resume, the experience they’ve gained from facing challenges in the world can still be a valuable organizational asset. The rapidly changing state of the world has curated a generation of employees who are experts at adaptation. Having experienced a high value of change on a truncated timeline, this new generation offers organizations invaluable knowledge, insight and understanding of the world today — unsurprisingly making them great mentors to all peers, even those in senior positions.

The Impact of Young Mentors at Marshall

In his leadership roles at Intuit and Marshall University, Brad D. Smith has utilized the worldview of young people to improve the way he leads and better communicate with his colleagues. During his presidency in the 2022-2023 school year, Brad shared with staff members conversations he had had with Marshall’s most recent student body president, Isabella Griffiths. He shared how her perspective had given him new ideas for approaching his work as the university’s president

In addition to the student government, Marshall’s Title IX Task Force is shaping the gold standard for a university’s approach for ensuring equity and safety for all students. The task force, which is mainly composed of students, has taught not only Brad but the university as a whole about the topic of equity and how to create a better future for students.

Learning From the Experiences of Young People

The next generation of leaders can teach their seniors and others around them a great deal. In addition to their technological acumen, members of Gen Z are also noted for having a tendency to take responsibility for their communities and striving to be good citizens of the world. The lens in which they see the world is an invaluable asset to organizations and leaders alike. With a vision for a better future and opportunities aplenty, Generation Z has already made its impact at Marshall — and is sure to make a positive influence in the world at large.

Hear Brad’s thoughts on the next generation of changemakers.