Reverse mentoring pairs an older executive with a younger employee. It's a way for seasoned leaders to learn about trends in technology, particularly social media, from people who literally grew up with it.
While he didn't come up with the idea, Jack Welch is credited with promoting the concept at GE back in the 1990s so top executives -- including himself -- could quickly get up to speed on the emerging potential of the Internet. Today, many established companies, including Time Warner and Booz Allen Hamilton, have widely adopted the practice.
The Harford Insurance company initiated its reverse mentoring program, prompted by a technology roundtable established by its millennial-aged employees. The younger mentors worked with their "mentees" to encourage use of RSS news feeds and to create LinkedIn profiles. Cohort groups were set up for debriefing sessions on what everyone had learned.
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And reverse mentoring was itself reversed: The more experienced mentees also provided career and developmental advice to their younger colleagues. Kelly Mooney, CEO of digital-marketing firm Resource, notes:
While I have many seasoned leaders to turn to [...] I have relied on one go-to Millennial [who] keeps me apprised of what's happening around the world with top brands, new technologies and co-creating consumers.
At Oglivy & Mather, mentees help senior executives "jazz up their Twitter posts" and put technology such as Skype videoconferencing to work to connect mentors and mentees among global offices.
Cisco instituted a formal selection process to ensure "[The] best mix of diversity in backgrounds and experiences so that they are exposed to different people who may have different ways of working and styles. In most cases, the mentor and the mentee will come from different organizations."
Setting Goals for Reverse Mentoring Programs
As is frequently common with reverse mentoring programs, participants sign a contract agreeing to a schedule of meetings, the objectives of the relationship, and a plan to achieve those objectives. Cisco limits the contract to six months, though both parties can agree to extend the relationship beyond that.
Most reverse mentoring programs share the following key features that ensure a mutually rewarding relationship that pays off for the company in developing a more productive and knowledgeable workforce:
It's not just about mixing old skills and new. Personal compatibility and openness to learning are key attributes for a successful relationship. Try to make a good match, or allow an easy out if the parties are not connecting.
Setting expectations. What's the point? It's not just to buddy up between distinct generations. It is to learn something, to develop skills, to work on common goals. Establish ground rules about what you want to accomplish, and by when it needs to be accomplished. Avoid the potential trap of this becoming a social relationship rather than a professional-development one.
There has to be buy-in. While the modern company is increasingly less hierarchical, older workers can still feel seniority and experience make them superior to their younger partners. Conversely, Millennials sometimes dismiss older colleagues as "don't seem to get it" Luddites. It's important that both parties be open to the notion that their different backgrounds and experiences complement each other.
Take off your boss hat. While it's impossible (and perhaps unwise) to ignore organizational rank in reverse mentoring assignments, the information flow is smoother when older workers can set their seniority aside. Reverse mentoring fosters collaboration on a more level playing field.
- Expanding beyond technology. While the original impetus behind reverse mentoring was to get older managers comfortable with emerging technologies, it doesn't have to be limited to that. Any skill can be reverse-mentored -- whatever the new person is good at, and the established person wants to learn. There is much to be gained from intergenerational skill sharing across an organization.