Follow the leader 


How to leverage the power of retirees as mentors and coaches

mentors group

Just 10 years ago, as the United States’ economy slowed to what seemed like a grinding halt and hiring rates plummeted, it was hard for some to imagine the tide could turn. Yet today’s employers across a wide array of industries are struggling to find qualified staff to fill open positions. This is for a variety of reasons, ranging from the opioid epidemic to retiring baby boomers to the need for more workers to fill STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) roles.

Fortunately, today’s employers also are benefiting from the fact that active retirees often look for ways to continue to contribute through volunteerism or paid work opportunities—and to return to the workforce, some in a similar capacity to their previously held jobs. As one recent retiree says, “If you’re working in a job you love, it just provides such a sense of contribution. It’s hard to replicate that sense of value by golfing, shopping and traveling!”

Numbers show threat and opportunity

When employees leave a company, they take a great deal of institutional and industry knowledge with them—that can be a threat. There is a related opportunity, though. Many of those recent retirees may be willing to continue in some role with the company—as a consultant, intern, mentor or coach.

“Every day we work with seasoned and accomplished professionals who have 25 years or more of experience in their field and want to work differently at this stage of their life,” says Deborah Seeger, senior vice president and co-founder of Patina Solutions, a consulting firm based in Brookfield, Wisconsin, that focuses on mentoring with seasoned executives. “They want to use all the experience, skills, knowledge and abilities they’ve built throughout their careers to help companies be faster, better and smarter while having more flexibility to do the things they want to do when they want to do them.”

That model, she says, works perfectly in an environment where baby boomers are thinking about retirement but continue to be in demand to help transfer knowledge to the Gen X and millennial employees behind them. They are, in effect, part of the burgeoning gig economy—the growing tendency for workers to work on a contract or freelance basis for multiple employers or clients rather than just one.

Retirees bring big benefits 

mentors single 2Mentoring relationships between retirees and younger employees bring a wide range of benefits, according to Patina. These include:

  • Mentoring from proven executives provides guidance and insights to help people grow their skills and capabilities.
  • A successful mentor is a good source of development, advice, information and unbiased perspective, who can leverage career experiences and learning to help mentees develop stronger competencies and capabilities.
  • Mentors help mentees navigate new experiences, increase competency and accelerate learning.
  • Mentors help mentees avoid mistakes, managing and mitigating risks associated with inexperience.

Corrie Shanahan, a Washington, D.C.-based executive coach and expert on corporate culture and performance who frequently works with senior executives who are transitioning into “portfolio careers after a lifetime in the corporate world,” says these execs often express an interest in coaching and mentoring. “The ones who have been most successful are those who do this in a formal capacity, often via a commercial board or advisory board position,” she says. “There they can coach and mentor a chief executive officer or management team that respects and needs what they have to offer.” Where she’s seen less success “is when retirees take a coaching certification course after retirement and attempt to build a practice as a coach.”

Shanahan recommends her clients look for opportunities where they can have fun, make an impact—and be paid. “The last point matters because it means the firm engaging you, even when it’s your former employer, needs to believe you’re providing value and, if you are, they should be willing to compensate you for that,” she says. “Whether or not you actually need the money is irrelevant.”

From an employer’s standpoint, it’s important to recognize that retirees will have different goals in terms of what they’re hoping to get out of the relationship, Shanahan notes. Their goals will affect the type of engagement that will work best. For instance, those looking to have fun are likely more interested in informal coaching or role modeling opportunities that may involve meetings over coffee or lunch and participation in social activities. Those interested in earning extra money are more likely to look for ways they can make more formal contributions, perhaps in explicit training roles.

Ensuring value for all involved in these relationships (the mentor, the mentee and the company) requires a specific focus on process. It’s important to not simply leave the relationship and the results to chance, particularly when the relationships involve a more formal transfer of learning than informal role modeling and relationship building.

Transfer of knowledge

Retirees who serve as mentors and coaches have an opportunity to transfer knowledge to younger colleagues at all levels of the company. Retirees who held senior leadership roles are in a good position to help middle managers develop the skills and abilities to move into senior management. Those who were in middle management can mentor nonmanagerial staff. And retirees at all levels have knowledge to share with the newest entrants to the workforce.

mentors group smallThat transfer of knowledge may be both explicit and tacit, says Donnie Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. He also is an author, coach and consultant who coined the term “boomerknowlogy” to refer to the study of transferring explicit and tacit knowledge from boomers to the new generation of managers and leaders.

Explicit knowledge, Hutchinson says, “is easily transferred from boomers to others through writings, work processes, manuals and other communication means.” Tacit knowledge, he says, is “hidden knowledge.” It’s knowledge gained through experience and can be difficult for boomers to actually describe. Hutchinson works with clients to help them transfer both types of knowledge from boomers to newer generations of employees.

He says the explicit knowledge transfer process begins with interviewing and documenting work processes, ideas, instructions, etc. “Get as much as you can out of their head and document it. They have a ton to share,” he adds.

Hutchinson also recommends an apprentice concept as another approach to knowledge transfer. “Decades ago, many of the complex manufacturing and service trades paired a new hire up with an experienced employee,” he says. “The new employee shadowed the tenured person and learned not only the explicit work instructions and processes but also got to experience how the tenured worker approached the encountered problems and obstacles.” The apprentice process can be useful in unearthing tacit knowledge as the apprentice interacts, observes and learns from the boomer mentor. “From my leadership consulting experience, the leadership apprentice concept is something boomers have had much fun with and provides them a wonderful feeling of contribution and accomplishment,” he adds.

It’s clear that the ability to re-engage retired workers as mentors and coaches holds a number of benefits. What should employers do to pave the way for these types of transitions or to find retirees interested in coming back to contribute to their former—or other—companies?

Internal vs. external mentors

Companies interested in leveraging the value of retirees as mentors may choose to engage with their own former employees, reach out to former employees from other companies or industries, or some combination of the two.

“As a frequent business adviser, I’m often asked whether I’ve seen companies get more value from using internal or external mentors to help develop their best talent,” Seeger says. Her response: “There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. I believe there is value to engaging both types of mentors—and for many companies, the best solution is a customized mix.”

There are pros associated with both internal and external mentors, as well as coaches. Internal mentors already understand the company and team dynamics. External mentors, though, bring an outside perspective and viewpoint.

Most often, internal mentors are used to train their own replacements. Outside recruits would be more challenged to do this; although, where factual knowledge is more important than institutional knowledge, external mentors also may be able to provide value.

Creating your program

While the value in recruiting retirees to serve as mentors or coaches is apparent, the process shouldn’t be left to chance or be handled too informally. Beth Carvin, president and CEO of Nobscot Corp., shares a number of tips for starting a successful mentoring program in a blog post for Mentor Scout. While not specifically intended for retiree-specific mentoring programs, the recommendations are applicable:

  • Determine mentoring program objectives
  • Find an executive champion for the program
  • Determine a budget
  • Identify employees to participate
  • Determine program structure, including such considerations as length of the mentorship, required or suggested number of meetings between mentor and mentee, maximum number of mentees per mentor, and eligibility for participation
  • Determine mentor matching strategies
  • Find mentors
  • Publicize
  • Launch program
  • Communicate frequently with program participants
  • Develop and track program metrics against identified objectives.

Finally, Carvin writes: “Clearly communicate the success of the mentoring program to senior leaders inside and outside of human resources. Make your executive champion (and yourself) look good.”

Recruiting retiree mentors and coaches

Retirees can be recruited either from among your soon-to-retire or already-retired staff members or more broadly. Communication is key to ensure they are not only aware of the opportunity, but they also understand the benefits to themselves, their mentees and your company.

mentors single 2Before they retire: If your company feels your retiring workers could provide value through mentoring or coaching other employees, communicate with them about these possibilities at an early stage in their retirement process.

Once your program is in place, the mentors and mentees themselves can serve as great ambassadors for the program, sharing their experiences with others and encouraging them to participate. Provide forums for them to do this through employee meetings, the employee newsletter, online channels and other communication tools used in your company.

Reaching out to other retirees: Contacting retirees who weren’t formally connected to your company can occur through the same channels used for traditional recruitment activities, with some specialized options available, as well. AARP provides a list of resources for its members that can be a good starting point.

Job fairs, some targeted specifically to seniors, can be a good way to connect with seniors who may be interested in mentorship.

Community organizations like the ADRC, SCORE, and others also can be a good way to connect with retirees and let them know about opportunities to volunteer or work with your company as a mentor or coach.

The gig economy: According to an article on, “By 2027, freelancers are expected to become the workforce majority based on the current growth rate, due to factors such as automation, freedom, flexibility and the ability to earn extra money. What’s more, nearly 50% of millennial workers are already part of the gig economy.”

There are a number of online sites that are good sources of gig workers, such as

Reverse mentoring

Finally, don’t fall prey to the conventional thinking that mentoring occurs between an older, more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced mentee. In fact, these relationships can bring value in both directions. For example, digital natives can help their baby boomer colleagues and retirees become more comfortable with new technologies, social media platforms and apps.

As more of your workers begin to consider leaving your company to enjoy their retirement years, now is a good time to be thinking about how a retiree mentorship program could benefit your company.


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