Never Too Old to Learn: The Benefits of Reverse Mentoring
February 2, 2016 | Business and Careers
I’m not afraid of technology. But as a Baby Boomer, I didn’t grow up with a smartphone in my hand, so staying up on the latest social media apps is not always a priority for me. Not long ago, I sat down with someone in my office who’s a few decades younger and came right out and asked: “Okay. You’ve got to explain Twitter to me. What is it? Why do people care about it? How does it work?” I certainly don’t plan to tweet what I have for breakfast every day, but as a working professional, I do feel the need to stay current if I want to be relevant.
This kind of scenario is being played out in organizations of all sizes these days in a wave of what’s being called “reverse mentoring.” Instead of experienced people taking junior co-workers under their wings, reverse mentoring flips that notion on its head with younger talent mentoring their older colleagues. It’s a concept that’s made its way into companies such as GE, Unilever, Dell and Proctor & Gamble.
Aside from the obvious benefit of helping older co-workers get a better handle on social media, there are many reasons why bridging the generation gap through reverse mentoring makes sense—for the company, the person being mentored and the young mentor.
For the Company
Giving voice to younger workers opens the door to fresh perspectives and new opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed. Plus, being known as a company that offers young people opportunities to share their expertise will help in the recruitment and retention of talented people.
And while reverse mentoring is primarily thought of as a way to connect senior employees to their junior counterparts, reverse mentoring also has a role to play within the context of diversity. A company that truly wants to create a diverse, inclusive environment would benefit from encouraging reverse mentorships between people of different ethnicities.
For the Senior Person Being Mentored
In terms of learning about a new technology, reverse mentoring can help older workers keep up, stay relevant and feel empowered. But the benefits to senior leadership extend well beyond a personal sense of accomplishment. In my leadership role, I’ve often reached out to people who were younger or different from me to better understand what they care about and how they like to work. I do that because I know that when I’m in tune with their experiences, I can help my multigenerational teams be more effective and productive.
For the Young Mentor
While these programs are typically designed to deliver a benefit to older and more experienced workers, reverse mentoring—when it’s done well—is a two-way street. In exchange for sharing his or her particular skills, the junior mentor gets access to more-senior leaders and the opportunity to learn from people who have years of experience in their field. And as mentor and mentee get to know each other better, both may find themselves less frustrated with and more respectful of their co-workers from other generations.
Like all mentorships, reverse mentorships don’t have to be part of a formal program to be effective. If your company doesn’t offer a mentoring program, you can always seek out a mentor—or offer yourself up as a mentor—on your own. In the end, being open to learning from people who are different from you, whether that difference is age or ethnic background or something else, can only help broaden your knowledge and perspective.