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How reverse mentoring can teach leaders something new

Matt Chittock

Reverser mentoring can help older workers learn about new technology

Thought that mentorship schemes had to mean older, more established employees sharing their experience with your company’s fresher faces? Then it’s time to think again, says Matt Chittock

Reverse mentoring is a new approach to workplace learning which neatly flips the concept of traditional mentoring on its head. By inviting new starters to share their knowledge with managers, rather than the other way round, both parties can benefit. The new starters get fresh contacts and feel like their ideas matter, while the old hands get insights into new technology (typically social media) and business trends evolving outside the organisation.

Ed Cox, managing director at digital communications agency Reason Digital, says that this flow of new ideas is vital to keep a workplace from stagnating.

“I can’t stress enough the value to organisations of young employees coming in and sharing their knowledge,” he says. “It’s not always true that the person that’s been there longest knows the most and it’s all too easy to fall into that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. Young people can offer fresh eyes to the way a company works – and that’s very important. I work in a very young industry and I rely on people a lot younger than me to share their skills and ideas on how we should run the business.”

Putting mentoring in reverse

Reverse mentoring might sound like one of the potentially disruptive ideas you’d find at a forward-thinking company like Google or Apple. In fact, this drive towards harnessing the skills of younger employees was originally championed by one-time General Motors CEO Jack Welch.

Recognise the implications of reversing the normal hierarchical nature of the relationships within your organisation and put planning into making the relationship worksapien

Back in the 90s he noticed that many managers at GM had trouble using the internet, so he tasked 500 top-level executives to ask younger employees for guidance. The execs, including Welch himself, came away knowing how to use Netscape, while the mentors got great new business contacts.

Martin Addison, CEO at training specialists Video Arts, believes that reverse mentoring is a positive way for companies to attract and retain talented Millenials, the digital-savvy generation born between 1980 and 2000.

“John Seely Brown, co-chairman of Deloittes’ Center for the Edge, says that the current generation of leaders defined themselves in these terms – ‘I am what I wear, what I own and what I control’,” he explains.

“He compares that against the viewpoint of the Millennial generation entering management with the idea that ‘I am what I create, what I share and what others build on’".

Addison says that schemes such as reverse mentoring are catnip to this Millenial worldview since they “can help us break out of the hierarchical model of business and allow us to participate in knowledge flows online.”

Practical applications

So that’s the theory – but how does it work in practice?

Si Conroy, founder of management consultants Scarlet Monday, says that first it’s important to get buy-in from senior executives on the importance of such a scheme.

“Recognise the implications of reversing the normal hierarchical nature of the relationships within your organisation and put planning into making the relationship work,” he says.

Conroy explains that this will involve empowering the junior mentors while removing any resistance senior staff may have.

So while teaching managers to maximise social media can be one successful outcome of reverse mentoring, the scheme’s effectiveness comes down to making relationships work in the real world.

“You want to ensure that mutual respect is established,” adds leadership consultant Cheryl Cran. “The senior leader may have years of experience and success and may feel that he or she doesn't need to learn from a younger, just out of university employee. There needs to be a willingness on both parts to respect each others skills and knowledge.”

Cran says that a simple way to achieve buy in all round is to formally recognize and reward both the mentor and mentee.

“The key is to set up the goals for the reverse mentoring and the benefits up front. Ideally the pairing results in advanced learning for both parties and a sense of success as well,” she says.

As Cran says, like any traditional mentoring scheme, there should be firm expectations and outcomes on both sides of the equation – plus regular time set aside for sessions.

However, Conroy says that setting goals can be problematic, since senior staff in many organisations may not realise they need up-skilling, or as he puts it – “they may not know what they don’t know!”.

To solve this problem he advises setting up a database to achieve effective skill matches.

“As part of injecting more formality in a reverse mentoring scheme, think about creating a database of skills and potential internal providers,” he says. “This can reduce the friction in the start of the relationships and make it easier for the senior mentees to access what they need.”

“Identify the key Gen Ys who have specific skill knowledge of the content to be shared with their mentee. This can be matched to a development opportunity of an older employee,” adds Cran.

“For example: You might have a Zoomer [a baby boomer who embraces the internet] executive who uses Google Hangouts but doesn't know how to maximize it.”

Cox says that this kind of situation can be common in many organisations. He explains that older employees may use social media regularly to catch up with friends and family – but might know how to make it work in a business context.

“That’s where younger employees have the advantage,” he says. “They’re used to dealing with companies through social media every day, so they don’t know how it works and how effective it can be.”

A softly softly approach

Meanwhile, if reverse mentoring sounds too much of an ask for your company at the moment, there are ways to approach it in a less formal manner.

“Soften the relationships,” advises Conroy. “If there is not already a well-used social culture, consider creating opportunities for potential mentees and mentors to meet in a softer environment. A scheme lunch buffet, or after-work cocktails can help lubricate relationships and improve the quality of interactions with and in the scheme.”

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