Reverse mentoring is becoming a popular buzzword in business circles lately, but is it right for your company?
First off, let’s define it. When we think of mentoring, we tend to think of seasoned employees taking younger employees under their wings and teaching them the ins and outs of business.
Reverse mentoring flips the script. It’s designed to empower younger workers to share their expertise and ideas with more senior employees.
The idea driving this growing practice is that matching up workers of different generations, for example, baby boomers with ever-connected millennials, facilitates the exchange of expertise and ideas. This benefits companies and helps foster an environment of growth and learning.
Senior workers learn new skills and break out of their comfort zones, while younger employees learn important business basics they didn’t pick up in the classroom.
Sure, it can be tough for an employee who’s been at a company for more than 20 years to take the advice of younger, less experienced colleagues. But, younger employees have much to offer, especially when it comes to technology, innovation and collaboration.
Here’s why incorporating a reverse mentoring component into your employee development strategy can help you build a successful employee mentoring program.
1. Give your company a fresh perspective
The way we work has changed dramatically over the years – from the days when everyone used paper-based systems and worked in enclosed offices or cubicles, to today’s digital workplace and open-environment offices.
There’s a lot to be learned from younger employees in this regard, particularly from millennials and the incoming Generation Z, who have grown up with technology. They’ve cut their professional teeth on collaborative, inclusive work environments that are more social in nature.
Tweeting and texting are as innate to millennials and Gen Z as eating and breathing. They can help bridge the gaps some of your more seasoned staff may have, particularly in areas like social media and your business’s online presence.
So, why not tap into all the knowledge and insight your less-experienced employees bring to the table?
In most cases, up-and-coming employees are more than happy to offer their expertise to tweak current business practices. They can help you generate company-wide enthusiasm for streamlining processes, which can be effective with employees who may be more resistant to change.
Reverse mentors will often become internal ambassadors for improving efficiency throughout your entire organization, for instance:
- Leveraging technology to move from an outdated performance evaluation system to a digital platform
- Connecting to sales prospects using social media channels
- Developing multi-media marketing resources that incorporate podcasts and videos of customer testimonials
- Reducing expensive and unnecessary travel by adopting video conference technology and current mobile apps
- Collaborating with teams of diverse backgrounds and experiences
2. Empower emerging leaders
Younger workers, in general, don’t see themselves as tied by loyalty to any one company. Instead, what motivates them is how their work is valued, which makes reverse mentoring a great fit for them.
Nothing says, “We value your skills and contribution to the company” quite like asking someone to share what they know, and coach and inspire others.
Reverse mentoring also helps strengthen relationships throughout your workforce and makes employees feel more connected to your company and its values. And for millennials and Gen Z-ers, this sense of connectedness and alignment of values is absolutely essential to their fulfillment.
3. Sharpen the saw – and keep it sharp
Lifelong learning is critical in today’s workplace. Employees of any age must keep their skills current or run the risk of becoming obsolete.
Reverse mentoring gives more-experienced employees the opportunity to hone and refine their established leadership practices, based on feedback, discussion and open dialogue with their less-experienced colleagues. And while they may be the “mentee” in a reverse mentor relationship, they’ll find there are many opportunities to share their expertise as well.
4. Teach new workers critical business survival skills
The transition from the classroom to the boardroom can be tricky for workers recently out of school. What senior-level employees may lack in tech savvy, they typically more than make up for in business acumen and industry insight.
Senior employees can share their deeper understanding of your company’s cultural norms, inside information about how the business works, the right terminology to use when discussing a business concept, and what and what not to do.
Think of it as Workplace 101 for newbies.
These kinds of hidden skills aren’t taught in school but are crucial for surviving and thriving in the business world.
5. Break down generational stereotypes
This is probably the biggest benefit of reverse mentoring.
So often, you only hear the stereotypes. The younger generation doesn’t work as hard. The older generation is stubborn and set in their ways.
Don’t buy into the stereotypes. In the same vein, don’t make assumptions about different generations that may be fueled by stereotypes.
For example, while it’s true that millennials and Gen Z have grown up using technology, that doesn’t mean some of your older employees aren’t equally adept with digital communication and processes. They may have taken it upon themselves to use and learn about technology in their personal or professional lives.
When all age groups interact regularly, it breaks down those misconceptions. Each group begins to understand what motivates the other groups, which results in better collaboration and partnerships throughout the company.
By removing barriers and empowering all of the players in your multi-generational workforce to work better together, you’ll create a synergy of skills and abilities.
Is your company ready for reverse mentoring?
Before launching a reverse mentoring program, consider what you want it to look like. Should it be formal or informal? Also, is this an initiative your employees would embrace?
Sometimes it can be hard for members of an older generation to accept honest feedback from their younger cohorts. They may think, “I’ve been here forever. Who is this person to tell me what to do?”
If you’re sensing some resistance, but strongly believe your company would benefit from a reverse mentoring program, you can make it work if you approach the issue sensitively. The key is to frame the mentoring relationship the right way. Instead of designating the younger employee as the mentor and the older employee as the mentee, you might say something like this:
“We want to pair you together in a mentoring relationship, so you can look at the business from many different angles and perspectives and talk about how to make the business better. This is an opportunity for both of you to learn and grow, and enjoy the experience.”
This way, you emphasize the benefits of the relationship for both parties and put them on equal footing.
How to craft a reverse mentoring program
1. Set standards and parameters
Determine whether the program will be informal or formal. Will your employees be more receptive to a chat over coffee or scheduled meetings with established goals?
How will you select and establish mentors and mentees? Similar backgrounds and same gender, or looser guidelines? Determine your expectations for the relationship, whether it’s creating a safe space to share ideas or outlining specific, measurable outcomes.
2. Tie it to a business need
Both formal and informal reverse mentorships will be more successful when they focus on a broader business need, rather than one specific technology or task.
For example, consider enlisting a tech-savvy employee to advise you on using social media to generate more sales leads, instead of just focusing on how they can help you craft the perfect tweet. It’s great to learn new skills, but those skills need to tie in with your business strategy.
3. Meet regularly
For the best results, aim to have mentors and mentees meet at least an hour a week.
Meetings need to be frequent enough so that the mentor and mentee have routine opportunities for exchanging meaningful dialogue – listening to each other and engaging in motivational conversation about business. It shouldn’t be just an activity they check off once a month.
With these guidelines in hand, you’re ready to launch a reverse mentoring program and reap the benefits. Don’t be surprised if it shakes up your company a bit – but in a good way.
Reverse mentoring challenges all employees to step outside the box, and look at how they think, work and learn. Increasingly, companies are using this strategy to bridge the generation gap and fuel business innovation and growth.
Learn more about mentoring and employee development in our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.