Reverse mentoring (or reciprocal mentoring) refers to an initiative in which older executives are paired with and mentored by younger employees on topics such as technology, social media, and current trends. In the tech industry or other businesses that rely heavily on technology, reverse mentoring is seen as a way to bring older employees up to speed in areas that are often second nature to 20-something employees, whose lives have been more deeply integrated with computers and the web.
The idea that senior executives could stand to learn a thing or two from new employees goes against traditional workplace practices, where more experienced workers often provide the most input, make decisions, and provide mentorship to newer employees with less experience. However, fast-moving developments in technology and trends have reversed this logic in some offices, where older workers may have experience and insight, but lack strong skills in newer technologies.
It is often seen as an opportunity for give and take, whereby new and experienced employees share their knowledge, boosting both the groups’ understanding and improving overall communication and collaboration in the workplace.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, has been credited with helping to spread the popularity of reverse mentoring. Back in the 90s, he realized that GE management had much to learn about the Internet, so he mandated that top executives at the company (including himself) take on a reverse mentor. Today, companies such as Accenture, BP, IBM, Procter & Gamble, and Time Warner have formal reverse mentoring programs that help them expand brands and boost profits.
So what are some of the benefits of reverse mentoring for senior management?
1. You can get advice and information that you wouldn’t receive from your usual sources: A younger person can introduce you to new ideas you might not have known about.
2. You can get caught up on technology faster: Broadening your sources of information to include online databases and social media applications lets you stay in the know.
3. You can work together to come up with a new perspective: Reverse mentoring makes you more creative, especially about ways to reach younger consumers or market a new product or service online inexpensively.
4. You can get energized – and so can your reverse mentor: Engaging with a younger mentor enriches your daily experience on the job, and increases the sense of a shared dialogue in the office.
5. The nature of the relationship is informal: Reverse mentorship is free from the pressures of formal mentoring. It starts with a meaningful conversation and has the potential to evolve into a substantive relationship.
We offer some tips on how senior managers can make the most of a reverse-mentoring relationship:
- Finding a reverse mentor: If your firm or organization doesn’t already have a reverse-mentoring program, request one. If your company is small and can’t develop a formal reverse-mentoring program, ask your boss if you and a young employee could try doing it informally.
- Be open to the experience: For reverse mentoring to work exactly as it should, define expectations up front. Have an end goal in mind, and commit the necessary time. Most importantly, dissolve the barriers of status, power, and position.
- Bring value to the relationship: Mentoring flows both ways. When you approach someone, share what you will be able to offer in return.
- Establish ground rules about privacy and confidentiality: If you don’t, your mentor might end up blurting out to the world some of your personal information, pictures, or even trade secrets.
- Don’t let the tail wag the dog: Get as much tactical feedback as possible from your young adviser, but be wary about letting a reverse mentor dictate work strategies you should employ.
As employers look for ways to better manage their increasingly age-diverse workforce, reverse mentoring just might pave the way for a new standard of open dialogue in business, stretching far beyond technology. After all, advancing oneself in today’s volatile economy is all about continuous learning. And what better way to learn than by creating a 360-degree dialogue with all generations?