Sonia McDonald

Reverse Mentoring – Letting Young Leaders Show the Way

People say that leaders come in all shapes and sizes but, in practice, how often do they look beyond the regular hierarchy? Experience comes with age, so it has been the older workers who have become our leaders.

Now things are different. The world has changed, the economy has changed, our tools have changed, and above all, our attitude to and beliefs about work have changed. For our older or more entrenched leaders, the things they knew so well just don’t apply any more. To the young, the world is full of potential without limits.

Far-sighted organizations are moving to tap into the new skills and perspectives that younger employees bring with them, and finding ways to share them around the workplace. One of the most successful methods in use is reverse mentoring.

What is reverse mentoring?

Well, if you’ve ever called on your child or a young person to help you work out how to use your new smartphone or the latest gadget, you have been reverse mentored.

I believe that the best reverse mentoring actually has a two-way component to it. While the older person picks up new skills from the younger, he or she is able to share with them their own experience and expertise as needed. For example, their years of customer service experience will be invaluable to anyone who interacts with clients via social media or online technology.

Old lady with tablet PC and smartphone

What are the benefits of reverse mentoring?

Benefits to the young: New or emerging leaders have the chance to practice their Leadership skills in a safe environment. They learn to take responsibility for a person or a project, and guiding it through to fruition. They also learn to understand why the older person might view their job as a long term prospect, rather than look for new opportunities elsewhere.

Benefits to the older leaders: They can develop new skills and knowledge, and learn to use new tools and technology in the safety of their workplace. They will also be exposed to the new way of thinking about work, life and the future.

Benefits for organisations: As an extension of workplace inclusion, generational diversity gradually becomes part of the organisational culture. The flow of skills and abilities crosses age and status barriers, and talent is recognised no matter which age group or gender possesses it.

Photo of small girl threading, teaching her elders how to do it. A good example of reverse mentoring benefits.

How can you introduce reverse mentoring?

It’s essential not to view reverse mentoring as a solo program. It’s not. It should be just one of your leadership strategies and therefore part of your leadership development program. Both the mentor and mentee may need training in how to work together on this new relationship. The introduction of reverse mentoring might also require some change in your organisational culture before the concept is accepted.

In very simple terms, there are four key steps to introducing reverse mentoring into your workplace.

1. Plan your strategy:

How formal will this be? Who will manage the process? How will you choose the participants? How will you align mentor with the mentee?

2. Educate:

This is a new concept, so people need to learn what it is and see the benefits it offers them. Most people will not have worked with a mentor before, so it will take time to embed the idea in their minds.

3. Manage expectations:

Every relationship will bring different results so it’s important not to promise something that can’t be delivered. Help people learn to focus on the skills and knowledge they will gain and how it will help them perform their current roles.

4. Monitor and evaluate the process

How are the pairs working? Are the skills being transferred and are they subsequently being applied in the workplace? What results can you see? Is there a visible ROI?

Reverse mentoring is such a rich and valuable process that it’s worth the time and effort it takes to create your strategy. Not only will there be a transfer of knowledge, there will be improved intergenerational relationships, better communication and greater respect for skills, regardless of age or status.

How many young people do you have in your workplace who could teach us all a thing or two?

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