9 MIN READ
Building Mutually Beneficial Partnerships
Learning is ever in the freshness of its youth, even for the old.– Aeschylus, Greek Playwright
People often think that the longer you work for an organization, the more you know and the less you need to learn. However, younger members of staff who are just entering the workplace often have new skills and expertise, and they can provide fresh perspectives and ways of working that can benefit their more established colleagues.
Companies are now starting to realize that top-down learning is not always appropriate, particularly where social media and use of technology are involved, and "reverse mentoring" programs are emerging as a result. These give junior team members the opportunity to share up-to-date skills and knowledge with more senior colleagues.
We'll look at reverse mentoring in this article, and we'll discuss how you can use it to build your skills and bridge generational gaps.
What Is Reverse Mentoring?
In reverse mentoring, a junior team member enters into a "professional friendship" with someone more senior, and they exchange skills, knowledge and understanding. For example, a younger person might be more comfortable with tools such as Pinterest®, WhatsApp® and Hootsuite®, so encouraging a pairing with an older colleague who has less experience of using these technologies can improve that person's ability to connect with potential clients or customers.
The former CEO of General Electric®, Jack Welch, is credited with inventing the concept of reverse mentoring. He recognized his lack of technology skills in the late 1990s, and believed that the youngest people joining the company were far more knowledgeable about new technologies than their managers. So, he asked 500 of his top executives to seek out mentors from among these new joiners.
Usually, a mentor is expected to be more senior and more experienced than his or her mentee. However, reverse mentoring recognizes that there are skills gaps on both sides, and that each person can address their weaknesses with the help of the other's strengths. For example, a younger team member can pass new skills and ideas up the corporate ladder, and someone older can become a role model or a career coach.
Why Form a Reverse Mentoring Relationship?
Reverse mentoring can play an important role in bridging the gap between the generations currently in the workforce: baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976), and Generation Y, also called millennials (born between 1977 and 1998). These groups have experienced vastly different social and cultural situations, which has resulted in varied work ethics, mindsets and attitudes.
This has led to a number of prejudices and stereotypes forming that can be difficult to overcome. For instance, some people view millennials as spoiled, unmotivated and self-centered, while some millennials view older generations as inefficient and resistant to change. Executives and other leaders need to learn how to cross the generational divide and communicate with, motivate and engage younger team members. Reverse mentoring can help to challenge these stereotypes, and benefit your team members and the organization as a whole.
It's important to remember that not everyone from a specific generation will have had the same experiences or share the same behavioral traits. Treat each member of your team as an individual, and use your best judgment when setting up a reverse mentoring relationship.
Drawbacks of Reverse Mentoring
You may experience several potential drawbacks when you engage in a reverse mentoring partnership.
First, more senior team members may not believe that their younger mentors have valuable knowledge to share, and they may not be open to receiving feedback from people with less experience. Conversely, younger team members need to feel confident enough to share their opinions, and they may be less willing to participate if they are afraid of giving feedback to older colleagues.
You may also find that people are unwilling to dedicate time in their already busy schedules to mentor a person they don't like or respect.
Finally, your role may not need much knowledge of new technology or Generation Y trends – in these situations, reverse mentoring partnerships may only be "nice to have," not "highly desirable."
How to Create a Successful Reverse Mentoring Partnership
Follow these five steps to set up an effective reverse mentoring relationship with a more junior team member.
1. Identify Good Potential Partners
An effective mentoring relationship needs good chemistry between both participants, so don't choose someone "just because they're young." Instead, your ideal partner should have skills or knowledge that you need and be willing to build a relationship with you. You may want to conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis to identify strengths and weaknesses that you can address.
You can also develop a relationship with someone externally who has different life and work experiences. Be careful not to share sensitive information about your organization if you do this, and get appropriate permission first.
Managers are busy people, and are unlikely to find the time for something unless they like the people they're working with. Likewise, more junior employees need to be able to like and respect the people they are paired with.
HR departments should try to avoid forcing mentoring relationships on people who, fundamentally, have no interest in engaging with them, or who don't respect the person they're being paired with.
2. Set Clear Goals and Expectations
You should discuss your expectations for the relationship with your mentoring partner upfront. Make sure that you're both committed, and that your goals are aligned. What do you want to get out of the relationship? What specific skills do you want to learn? What knowledge, skills and experience can you provide? How and where will you meet?
3. Work on Your Communication Skills
It can be challenging to communicate with someone from a different generation. For example, younger people may feel more comfortable engaging with others by email or instant messaging, while their older colleagues may prefer to speak on the telephone or meet in person. So, make sure that you're sensitive to the other person's communication preferences and needs.
Take our "How Good Are Your Communication Skills?" quiz to improve your skills in this area.
4. Be Tactful, Patient and Open-Minded
Both you and your reverse mentoring partner must be open to learning from one another. So, remain respectful, and listen actively without any preconceived ideas.
Don't get frustrated if your partner doesn't understand the skills you're trying to share. Instead, communicate with tact, and give encouraging feedback that does not belittle his knowledge. Use constructive feedback to help him understand your perspective.
5. Measure Your Progress
Check in regularly to ensure that you are both happy with the relationship, and that you're getting the information you need. However, if you are not making your desired progress, schedule a brainstorming session and discuss new ways to achieve your goals.
A junior team member and a more experienced colleague can "pair up" to their mutual advantage in a reverse mentoring partnership. This can benefit both parties in a number of ways that will enhance their careers. For example, they can share technology skills and generational insight, improve their leadership and communication skills, and gain new perspectives. Reverse mentoring can also improve understanding and collaboration in the workplace, and close generational gaps.
If you enter into a reverse mentoring partnership, make sure you choose the right partner who offers skills and knowledge that you lack. Ensure that you can add value too – these partnerships are two-way streets. You need to set clear goals and expectations when you've found the right person, and schedule regular meetings. You also need to demonstrate strong communication skills and remain open-minded to ensure that the reverse mentoring relationship is a success.
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