The Kids Are Alright: What Top Executives Can Learn From the Less Experienced

By Ian GoverApril 1, 2014

Mentoring has always been a great way to bridge the divide between the boardroom and the cubicle. In fact, many organizations are now trying a slight variation: reverse mentoring,

Younger, less experienced employees offering tutelage to senior executives?  No, this isn’t an April Fool’s Day prank. Reverse mentoring can help solve a common problem among large organizations: Senior executives become disconnected from the “rank and file,” while younger employees feel as if they don’t have enough of a voice.

What is reverse mentoring?As you’d expect, reverse mentoring simply flips the roles you’d find in a traditional mentoring relationship. The younger person acts as mentor, and the more experienced person as protégé.

As in any other mentoring situation, the mentor shares his or her knowledge of the world. But whereas traditional mentors share their experience, in reverse mentoring it’s more about helping the protégé understand the cutting edge. Younger employees may not have much work experience as their older colleagues, but they are often more attuned to new technologies and attitudes.

Here are some examples of how reverse mentoring can work, and what the benefits are:

1. Technology Knowhow

In some cases, younger mentors can simply share their knowledge of technology. In the past, companies like GE used reverse mentoring to teach their executives about the internet. Now, it’s more about social media and how to use it effectively.

Ten years ago, after all, Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist. Now, they’re multi-billion-dollar companies, changing the way we communicate. Smartphones are relatively new, too, but mobile technology is slated to play a huge role in the future of innovation.

It can be hard for people who grew up in a different era, and who are busy taking care of all their other responsibilities, to keep up with the latest tech trends. Regular meetings with a younger colleague can help executives understand how things are changing.

General Assembly in Manhattan, for example, offers courses to help executives understand the new digital landscape. And the chief executive of British retail giant Tesco regularly meets with a 28-year-old employee to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies.

2. Millennial Attitudes

Reverse mentoring is about more than technology, though. Successful organizations have always looked to the future, appealing not just to the current generation but to the next one as well. Good managers need to understand what young people want – how they want to communicate, what types of message they respond to, and what values they have.

In reverse mentoring, the mentor can share his or her worldview, helping the protégé to see the world through the eyes of the younger generation. This can help with anything from appealing to younger customers to making the workplace more attractive for talented millennials.

The Hartford, an insurance company, has been using reverse mentoring to help its executives understand how “to reach new customers as insurance shopping habits [are] changing, to understand the new workplace needs of its workforce, and to improve the bottom line.” The program has been successful not only in helping the executives create new business strategies, but in helping the young mentors with their careers and personal development.

3. Prepare for the Future

As with all types of mentoring relationship, reverse mentoring has benefits both for mentor and protégé. The chance to mentor senior executives provides young employees with a valuable boost to their leadership skills, as well as gives them a window on the organization they may one day run themselves.

It’s also a great way for organizations to retain their most talented young staffers. After all, surveys have shown that millennials are prone to job-hopping, which can be costly for employers. The process of working with senior employees gives young talent a stake in the business and helps them see how they can progress, increasing the chance of them staying for the long term.

How to Implement Reverse Mentoring

If you see a need in your organization for reverse mentoring – perhaps bosses who don’t “get” social media, or younger employees who feel frustrated by lack of opportunity to have their voice heard – then it may be worth implementing a formal reverse mentoring system.

Cisco, for example, recently introduced a program in its Asian businesses for younger mentors to help executives understand social media. Citigroup is following a similar approach in its Latin America business, using University of Miami students as the mentors.

Those programs are quite small, though. We’re interested in figuring out how to make this work at scale. What are some of the best ways of pairing mentors with protégés? How do the criteria for good mentors differ in a reverse mentoring situation? How do you measure the success of the program?

Let us know if you’ve come across successful reverse mentoring programs, either in your own organization or elsewhere.

Topics: Mentoring

Ian Gover

Ian Gover

Co-Founder at Everwise

About the Author

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