Back in early 2015, Forbes noted that “Millennials can’t find mentors.” But now, nearly five years later, we’ve embraced a curveball off that idea: “Reverse mentorship.” As you can potentially imply from the name, “reverse mentoring” is when younger workers -- such as Millennials or Gen Z -- become mentors to older workers, such as Baby Boomers. The most logical applications of this are around technology, social media, locating information quickly, and even current trends. We saw it play out politically when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a younger member of Congress taught older Democrats how to effectively use Twitter to reach their constituents. That’s the essence of “reverse mentoring” or sharing knowledge or skills across multiple generations. But if you want to set up a program in your office, where do you start?
Why do you need a reverse mentoring program?
Admittedly we spent a lot of time generalizing about different generations, but the most prevalent generalization is, by and large, that older workers are less connected to modern technology than younger workers, such as a Gen Z employee for example. Younger workers, having grown up in a more wired-in era, sometimes see intuitive uses for some workplace tech that older generations might not see simply because of the different worlds they've grown up in. It’s helpful to have those conversations that can lead to innovation or streamlining processes or procedures.
You can also look at 20-year increments of business history. The gap between, say, 1980 and 2000 was obviously massive -- Google and Microsoft, for example, began during that time frame. But the gap between 2000 and 2020 has seen a monumental explosion in different types of technology and connectivity, and also widening inequality and less and less loyalty between employer and employee (on both sides). Millennials and Gen Z don’t even have clear paths to retirement. It’s an uncertain professional time for many, especially with the rise of automation. So one additional benefit of reverse mentoring programs is to have younger workers explain their feelings about the working world they’ve entered and the different skills or mindsets they need to succeed to colleagues further down the career path than they are. Those conversations provide their mentorees with more context for some of the challenges and issues the younger workers are facing and also create opportunities for more experienced professionals to share tips, anecdotes, or advice. The increase in understanding and sharing can also have a positive impact on how teams communicate down the road.
How could you set up a reverse mentoring program?
Harvard Business Review has a good guide, noting that:
- The right match is crucial: Usually this is an issue on the mentee (older worker) side, because they don’t want to cross reporting lines or present any conflict of interest. You need to make sure both sides are bought in before you commence an official pairing. In researching this story, we heard from someone at a Minnesota company who tried reverse mentoring and it flopped. Why? Neither side was really that invested, with the employee noting “Sometimes the Millennial would be playing video games while in the mentoring meetings.” Not a great start.
- Allay fears: Again, there are typically more fears on the senior worker side, because established professionals don’t necessarily want to show their knowledge blind spots to more junior team members. So carefully outline what the process looks like and keep reinforcing that it’s not tied to any advancement or incentive -- it’s simply a way to improve communication, relationships, and ultimately overall productivity. Ideally, there will eventually be no fears and only growth.
- Don’t overlap with “shadow boards”: Shadow boards are pseudo-Board of Directors comprised of younger people, often designed at pushing culture change. Companies have tried to do both shadow boards and reverse mentoring and the findings are pretty conclusive that one or the other will win out. So don’t try to overlap them, or ultimately the commitment to one of the two concepts will be close to zero.
Tips for success
Once you have your program in place, keep these quick tips in mind to help it grow and be successful.
- Define expectations: Both parties should know what sort of time commitment they need to give and what they're expected to discuss in their meetings.
- Provide company support: Without buy-in from the company leadership, mentoring programs often die quickly.
- Respect each other: Create guidelines about how these relationships should work, how to handle feedback, and how to raise issues or conflicts so that everyone feels respected and heard.
- Set goals: It's helpful to know what each party wants to get out of the mentoring relationship so you have goals to aim for.
- Use active listening: It's not all about you. Mentoring relationships are about balancing each other's knowledge bases and when it's not your turn to share, listen closely to your partner.
- Be open about challenges: Not every relationship will work out and leaving your comfort zone isn't always easy so be open about discussing what is or isn't working so that everyone feels secure.
The bottom line
Workplace communication is a notoriously fraught issue, and assumptions about older workers and younger workers can run rampant if not managed out. Reverse mentoring is one great way to do this, and to potentially increase lines of communication and understanding while boosting productivity. Just ensure there is good buy-in from both sides before launching a program and monitor the progress of the idea as it rolls out to ensure it's long term success.
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