How mentoring can solve your brain drain

knowledge transferThere has been much talk this week about the process of passing on knowledge through the generations, from young to old.  Some have rightly claimed the process as key to the nations economic recovery, whilst others have bemoaned the high drop out rate.

The feeling you get from reading these many articles is that mentoring is the sole preserve of the young, so I would like to use this article to paint a slightly different picture, for I believe mentoring is absolutely essential to solving the looming brain drain.

You see the baby boom generation are beginning to retire en masse.  Around 650,000 retired this year.  Over 800,000 are set to retire next year.  That's a whole lot of experience departing from our companies and public services, and I think mentoring is one of the key components in ensuring that the knowledge these individuals have sticks at their organisation after they depart.

Learning across the generations

Traditionally capturing the knowledge of those departing hasn't happened an awful lot.  You only have to witness the number of retirees that are hired back as consultants after their departure to see that their knowledge isn't left behind when they go.

There has been a whole lot in the management press lately about the importance of training in engaging with staff.  Our research into Generation Y revealed that not only do they love professional development, they also tend to learn in a different way to older employees.  Traditionally Baby Boomer employees have learnt via classroom type environments, with the learning 'sold' to them by the tutor.  With Generation Y however the learning has to focus on the actual doing and the experience that comes with trying things out.

This is where mentoring plays a crucial part because it is very much on the job.  If done properly this can provide incredible benefits to both mentor and mentee, and should ensure that both the explicit and tacit knowledge of the Baby Boomer sticks with the company long after they have departed.

Here is a simple four step process to getting your knowledge transfer process up and running.

1. Understand where you are - Take an audit of your people, including their age, how close they are to retirement, what skills they have, how valuable those skills are and the risk to the company should they vanish.

2. Manage your talent - Ensure that you have the right culture and environment to attract the right talent across the age span.  Understand the different demands of the generations in order to attract talented youngsters, whilst also doing what you can to ensure key skills amongst your older employees are kept for as long as possible.

3. Manage your knowledge - To ensure you're not stung by retiring knowledge you need to ensure you have a good corporate memory.  Knowledge comes in two kinds - explicit (documents etc.) and tacit (informal heuristics).  You need to ensure you capture both.

4. Manage professional development - Make sure you have the training and mentoring processes in place so that retirements don't catch you by surprise.  That way you'll have great succession plans in place.

Does your company have plans to manage retiring baby boomers?


Absolutely nothing as far as I'm aware.  It's a massive oversight.

This is quite common though isn't it?  I mean most people probably know that you should have a pension and prepare for old age, yet an increasing number don't do anything about it until its too late.  This falls into that same camp.

This is something that Local Authorities appear to have been hit hard with over the last year or so. Many staff, with many year's experience, have taken early retirement as part of the austerity measures; taking with them their combined knowledge of may LA projects.

As Matt says; this is a massive oversight and the collective loss of knowledge to Local Authorities across the country must be huge.

Mike - with respect to your comment; there are similarities with pensions to be sure but, as far as pensions are concerned it affects the pensioner (and perhaps his/her family). For a business it can have an even greater imact on a much larger group of people so, if anything, is even more important.

I do think succession planning is an area treated by many organisations like disaster/continuity planning - i.e. it'll never happen to us.................head in the sand stuff with the potential to come back and bite you.

Quite agree.  I found a nice article today talking about the importance of utilising an executives last 100 days as opposed to focusing on their first 100 days.

Interesting stuff, thanks Nicola, especially the part where they recommend that the departing executive remains at full speed until their departure, not succumbing to the temptation to slow down and back off.

Doing a bit more research into this and the potential problem is quite stark in the public sector specifically.  Have a look at the demographics table below for the age breakdown of employees in various sectors of society.

uk employment demographics

I'll be doing a talk on this in a few weeks, putting the finishing touches to the presentation today so will upload when it's done.

We are currently supporting various businesses with embedding mentoring programmes within their organisational structure. I find that having someone with more experience within the business needs to be utilised not only at retirement age but well before that. However mentoring can be much more than just passing on knowledge, more often people just need to be supported and motivated to achieve their goals and ambition. This is where mentors who are taking their mentoring role serious distinguish themselves from others.

Yes, I very much agree Sven, it's something that should happen as part of the learning culture you wish to create.

Thanks Adi, I think you touched another valuable point “learning culture” business most valuable assets are their employees. However, I find that there is not enough emphasis on further development within organisations. If we would implement CPD on every level within the organisation than succession planning and leadership development would become natural.

Adi Gaskell wrote:

Doing a bit more research into this and the potential problem is quite stark in the public sector specifically.  Have a look at the demographics table below for the age breakdown of employees in various sectors of society.

uk employment demographics

I'll be doing a talk on this in a few weeks, putting the finishing touches to the presentation today so will upload when it's done.

Goodness, so nearly half of all public sector employees are over 45.  That can't be healthy, when you think it's just 35% in the private sector.

Interesting to read here about the number of people continuing to work past 65.

Double the number of people aged 65 and over are working in the UK compared with a decade ago, official statistics show.

A growing number of older people are working either full-time or part-time and make up a rising proportion of the total UK workforce.

Good to see people continuing to work though as it has so many benefits, both for the individuals and the organizations. 

Loss of key skills is rated as the 4th most pressing risk in the latest CMI business continuity research.



Interesting piece here about the number of senior police officers likely to retire in the next few years.

Labour said details obtained under Freedom of Information showed 13 forces definitely intended to use this power and that 1,138 officers either have or will be forced to retire by 2015.

Wonder if anything will be done to retain their knowledge before they leave?

"For three decades Ken Dychtwald has been proclaiming that a demographic tidal wave is approaching America. He calls it the Age Wave, which is also the name of his Emeryville, Calif. consultancy and a book he co-wrote back in 1989. Learn to ride it, he tells businesses, or you will be crushed and drowned. Now that the wave is beginning to hit full force, more and more businesses are listening."

This blog has brought out some excellent research and comments. It shows quite clearly that many people over 55 want to carry on, working, learning and making a contribution. Young and old can learn from each other through their interactions and mentoring and coaching are very effective ways of doing this. It’s something those of us in professional institutions should support and promote. Oh and I do like the idea of “Smart Pants”.

Really interesting thread.  Generations have so much to learn from each other these days and we need to find a formal structure to make it part of our culture.


Whilst talking between age groups is important, I think even more important is just talking full stop.  I mean how many of us regularly talk to people from other teams or departments?  How many of us could say right now what other people in our company are working on?  I suspect the answer is quite low, yet there's so much help and knowledge available if only we knew who to offer it to.

Everyone has something to offer no matter their age and we can all learn from others. Talking and active listening are the keys in this and a healthy respect for all age groups. Charlie has a point that in the current climate of more work for fewer staff it's harder to talk regularly sometimes.

But it's worth making that effort. Forums like this, LinkedIn, Internal blogs and in house staff magazines can help. But we all need to make the effort to pass on useful knowledge.

Things like reverse mentoring are also useful I think Thomas, if for no other reason than it breaks down some of the hierachies in a business and shows people that knowledge is what counts, not status.