Some people call it reverse mentoring, while others might refer to it as "May-November" mentoring. Whatever name you call it, the practice of having younger team members serve as gurus and guides for more experienced workers is being implemented more often these days.
There's no question that reverse mentoring turns the familiar mentor-mentee arrangement on its head. “You don’t normally seek a younger person to be your mentor,” acknowledges Vicki Wright Hamilton, founder of mentoring matchmaker The Wright Answer. “What normally happens is, the older person is seen as the mentor and the younger person is the mentee.”
But reverse-style mentoring isn't as crazy as it may sound, says Mike Bergelson, CEO and co-founder of Everwise, a workplace mentoring platform. “It’s true that we gain experience and knowledge as we get older, but there are lots of things that, say, our kids know that we don’t,” Bergelson explains. “For example, how many people over the age of 40 send more than 1,000 text messages each month? How many Gen Xers and boomers would conceive of publicly sharing as much as millennials do?”
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Technology is generally the first area people think of when they consider having someone younger mentor someone older. In particular, social media is a space where millennials have much to teach baby boomers and even Gen Xers.
But younger employees can also help loosen older executives’ generally hidebound perceptions and spur innovation in non-technical areas. “It may just be looking at something differently because they haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid for a decade or two,” says Leslie Ungar, business coach and founder of Electric Impulse Communications.
Another situation in which reverse mentoring shows promise is when an older manager needs insight into what makes younger employees tick. “If you're a baby boomer and you happen to be interfacing with millennials, Gen Xers or Gen Y, they can help you,” Hamilton says.
And this new mentoring shift helps youthful mentors as well as benefits their older mentees. For one thing, Ungar says, any mentoring arrangement involves two-way information flow. Young mentors also help themselves when they help their elders. “The best way to learn is to teach,” Ungar explains. “Even if it’s not set up for both to learn, both are going to learn.”
Proceed With Caution
Although there's currently a modest and growing level of enthusiasm for reverse mentoring, it’s not for every organization, experts caution. To begin with, unless an organization and its leaders are open to feedback from employees a little lower on the totem pole, reverse mentoring is a non-starter. Which means reverse mentoring isn’t going to work in that many businesses, Ungar says. “Most companies don’t get honest feedback [from employees]," she explains, "especially from down the organization chart.”
The egos of senior employees are probably the biggest obstacle to reverse mentoring, Bergelson says. But honest fear—of a younger worker taking the older employee’s job—can also play a role in making reverse mentoring difficult or impossible.
In addition, reverse mentoring saddles young mentors with special requirements, some of which they may have trouble meeting. For example, to effectively mentor an older worker, a young mentor needs a good measure of confidence as well as better-than-average communication skills, Ungar says.
This new style of mentoring also carries risk. The primary one, according to Bergelson, is that a young mentor will seek to curry favor with the more senior and, presumably, influential mentee. This could result in misallocation of funding or other organization resources. Advance training to help mentors and mentees recognize the right way and wrong way to establish and handle the relationship can help this problem, he says.
There are also some built-in limitations and potential drawbacks for using younger workers in a mentoring role that organizations would do well to recognize, Ungar adds. For instance, because younger workers have usually spent less time in an organization, they sometimes have less commitment to it. Among other things, that means younger workers are more likely than older ones to leave for another job, she says. And that could spell trouble for initiatives that were prompted by a younger mentor but left leaderless when they depart.
Reverse mentoring seems to be an obvious fit with today’s fast-moving, tech-centric business world. And as technology continues to develop at the speed of light, we'll likely see more of it, if for no other reason than that delayed retirement plans are keeping older workers on the job longer, presenting them with more inter-generational management tests and a need to stay in the loop from a technological perspective.
Still, many experts think that pairing older mentors with younger mentees will likely remain the norm for the near future, while reverse mentors will represent the occasional departure. “I don’t think they’ll become prevalent," Ungar says. “But when you have a person who can see value in someone with 30 years less experience, they can both profit so much.”
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