Reverse Mentoring: The Mentor Becomes the Mentee

Reverse Mentoring: The Mentor Becomes the Mentee

The practice of mentoring has been used to foster learning and personal development since the dawn of time. By offering support and guidance in developing skills and knowledge, mentors are sought out by individuals seeking to improve performance and maximise potential.

These mentors exist in a variety of fields such as music, sport, art, science, leadership and management, just to name a few.

We quite naturally assume age is an indication of experience, and thus find it natural to guide the younger generations. It’s therefore no surprise that the mentor is usually the mentee’s senior.

The underlying assumption is that the mentor has something worthwhile to offer the mentee, but what happens when the mentee is, in fact, the ~expert~?

In this ever-changing world of ours, we are constantly introduced to new and extraordinary technology, gadgets and trends. Managers are faced with a previously unheard of challenge; how to stay relevant. Society is becoming increasingly mobile; more connected; everything is available at the swipe of a finger and anything can be shared instantly across the globe. Senior managers of the world’s leading companies didn’t grow up with internet, unlike millennials who seamlessly live and breathe technology’s continuous evolution. It can therefore be argued that non-millennials need millennials to hold their hands and navigate this unchartered territory together.

In the late ‘90s, a brilliant man by the name of Jack Welch championed the idea of reverse mentoring; introducing it to the top management of his company General Electric. The idea was to create a two-way dialogue between generations, supplementing the traditional teachings of master to padawan with a reversed teaching where the mentor becomes the mentee.

In our modern era this is more relevant than ever as technologies and trends are developed, embraced and discarded within the scope of single generations. Without being shown, explained and taught how these consumer trends work, managers will soon find themselves catering to an audience that does not exist; obsolete.

So how exactly do we help each other stay relevant? Can’t we just give these geezers a crash course in social networking?

A shocking realisation, I’m sure, but when dealing with the more ‘senior’ folks patience is key. Lisa Bonner, a change management leader, used the platform of her Tedx talk to recommend ushering a culture where the younger mentors slowly and continuously introduce their old mentees to new trends and technologies. This is because she believes that what is force-fed often results in a right mess rather than proper digestion yielding valuable results. The underlying idea of reverse mentoring is to create an inclusive and innovative culture where talent and insight is valued across generations, allowing skills and knowledge to flow in both directions. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, and in return, the young get to learn the secrets of the trade.

Although I’m sure you’re all giddy with excitement to gallop off  on your new mentor high-horsesinto a sunset of enlightenment, you may want to consider establishing some ground rules first.

  • First off all, the manager must show willingness in developing his understanding of some area. This is where you come in, the expert on youthfulness.
  • Define your individual expectations of the relationship. Remember, this is a two way street and you are both supposed to draw learning from the other.
  • Establish a set of rules so that you are both clear on what topics you will cover and how you will treat one another. It is important to abolish any barriers of status, power or position, while still respecting each others’ time restrictions.
  • Show a genuine willingness in learning what the counterpart has to teach, and trust in their ability to push you safely beyond your current comfort zone, resulting in new ways of thinking and performing.
  • Allow honest feedback and encourage transparency regarding feelings and what you are thinking about during the exchange. Remember that it’s common for generations to think and communicate differently. Stay open-minded and persevere.

Header image credit: NASA APPEL

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