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Reverse mentoring can benefit everyone involved

When you read the word “mentor,” you might envision an older individual patiently and eloquently passing along decades’ worth of knowledge to a wide-eyed young student. Indeed, this is a kind of mentoring relationship that still exists and can prove beneficial to many organizations.

But there’s another take on the concept that can prove equally effective. It’s called reverse mentoring. Under this arrangement, a younger, usually less experienced employee mentors an older one, who’s typically in management or even an executive.

Why older employees should do it

Initially, many senior employees may resist the idea of taking direction from a younger employee further down the organizational chart. But you can cite some valid reasons to convince them. These include the opportunity to:

Learn new technical skills. It’s a bit of a cliché and not wholly accurate to say that older employees don’t understand technology or can’t use it effectively. But the fact remains that younger people grew up with smartphones, social media and other tech. They tend to use it more intuitively and have a better idea of which platforms are trending in popularity. 

Bridge the generational gap(s). Different generations have variations in values and preferred modes of communication. By playing the student in a reverse mentoring relationship, an older employee can better understand what motivates and discourages younger employees.

Socialize on a meaningful level. Many relationships between older, executive- or management-level employees and younger ones consist mainly of polite nods in the elevator or a few friendly remarks in a lunch meeting. Reverse mentoring helps senior employees get to know junior employees personally, which can lead to better communication and more open idea-sharing.

What younger employees get out of it

What do younger employees get out of being a mentor? Working directly with a senior staff member can provide the opportunity to: 

Develop training skills. On a basic level, reverse mentoring is a type of training — albeit an unusual one. Any younger employee who succeeds at it will have shown considerable initiative and no doubt cultivate notable skills in this area.

Increase visibility within upper management. Among the most common complaints of ambitious, younger employees is “I can’t get noticed!” Reverse mentoring puts them face to face with an older, more senior co-worker. This can enhance their prospects for promotions, though obviously your organization must continue to handle performance management in a consistent, unbiased manner.

Gain insights into leadership’s thought processes. Another frequent grumble of younger employees is that they don’t understand why the C-Suite does — or doesn’t do — certain things. Reverse mentoring can provide a clearer understanding of the challenges and strategic objectives of the organization.

Where to go from here

If these benefits strike you as appealing — and the demographics of your organization are suitable — now may be a good time to start exploring reverse mentoring. Our firm can offer further information or other ideas.

© 2019

Laura L. Stover, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, lstover@sek.com

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