How 'Reverse Mentoring' Can Make Your Organization More Effective

Diane Piktialis

When we think of mentoring, we usually think of someone with a lot of experience teaching and developing a younger novice. In recent years, mentoring has taken on many other forms such as peer and group mentoring. One of the newest forms is reverse mentoring. In reverse mentoring a senior employee is also mentored by the junior employee. The traditional one-way street becomes a two-way thoroughfare where employees of all ages can learn from each other.

The concept of reverse mentoring is said to have begun a decade ago at General Electric when then-CEO, Jack Welch realized he and his management team had much to learn about the Internet. Welch required 600 top executives, himself included, to find younger mentors who were knowledgeable about the internet. Most of the mentors were in their 20s and 30s.

Getting started in your organization. Reverse mentoring is most appropriate and powerful in situations where two individuals each have knowledge and skills the other needs to contribute to organizational performance. As a senior manager, give careful thought to where those opportunities exist in your own organization. The following possibilities may trigger ideas.

Senior employees can learn from younger coworkers. It’s common knowledge that younger people can benefit from older mentors who can transfer their accumulated knowledge and expertise. What can an experienced employee learn from a younger coworker? The answer is quite a bit.

  • Technology. The youngest generation in the workforce today, known as Millennials or Generation Y, is the first group of “digital natives.” Having grown up with technology and the Internet their entire lives, they are tech-savvy multi-taskers who easily master the latest tech gadget or tool. Baby Boomers and older workers, on the other hand, often need to upgrade their technology skills – and for many who plan to remain in the workforce – tech competence is a must.
  • Subject matter advances. With the recent explosion of information, even the most accomplished professional has difficulty keeping up with the latest developments in his or her field. Employees who are fresh out of school can share the latest thinking in a specific field (e.g., health care delivery, education or the environment), thereby helping later stage careerists remain current and enhancing their own capabilities and contributions.
  • Diversity. Most organizations continually work to increase diversity in their workplace. Research has shown that the youngest generation now at work is comfortable with and values diversity more than any age group to come before them. Their perspective can help in organizational efforts at enhancing diversity and inclusion.
  • Risk taking. Younger employees who grew up with technology developed a “trial and error” style of learning in which they are comfortable jumping in to a situation to figure things out. Such risk-taking can free up old habits and drive workplace innovation.
  • Global perspective. The Internet has expanded younger workers’ geographic perspective. On social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, young adults learn about global social issues such as world hunger, genocide in Darfur or endangered Beluga whales off Alaska. Their day-to-day social networks often include friends from all over the world. Even if a friend moves back to Paris or Taiwan (as was the case with two of my daughters' friends), they are just a click away. “Think global, act local” is second nature.

Get off to a strong start. Reverse mentoring doesn’t just happen by sitting two people of different ages in a meeting room. As you get started, here are some guidelines for managers to follow to help make reverse mentoring a success:

  • Do some planning to pick the right people. Identify individuals with the knowledge and skills their counterparts need.
  • Meet with the employees to convey the organization’s goals for bringing them together, emphasize how much you believe each person can learn from the other, and set expectations.
  • Train each participant in mentoring or coaching as needed.
  • Have each pair agree on what they want to accomplish and how/when to measure the results.
  • Have them meet on a regular schedule and communicate in between meetings by phone or online.
  • Make the time to ensure there is time to work together. Part of planning may be how to clear something off of each person’s schedule.
  • Beware of age stereotypes, no matter how enlightened you may think you are. Put these on the table, ask the mentors to suspend them, and pay attention to each other’s different learning styles.

Have fun! Managers and experienced workers take heed. If we take the time to get to know younger employees and get over our fears and stereotypes about them (e.g., they are not slackers; they just prefer to work at different times and from different places), we might just find that their youthful perspective can not only enhance our own skills, but can also be interesting and fun. Not coincidentally, fun is a workplace trait highly valued by younger workers.

Diane Piktialis, Ph.D., is a research working group and program leader at The Conference Board.