Use This Relationship to Foster Cross-Generational Camaraderie

What’s the difference between reverse mentoring and “regular” mentoring?

CCL’s Coaching Handbook defines mentoring as “an experienced leader meeting with someone more junior to help him or her benefit from the greater experience.”

Note that there’s no age stipulation. While we typically think of mentoring as senior-to-junior relationships, they don’t have to be.

In the Internet age, organizations are beginning to recognize the need for senior leaders to learn data and technology skills from their younger team members, many of them digital natives. That’s shifting the age-old perception, and giving rise to reverse mentoring for digital transformation.

Generational Challenges With Digital Transformation

I first learned about reverse mentoring 4 years ago. I’d just completed an ex-pat assignment overseas and had come to realize I was behind the times. My industry was rapidly moving forward in micro-bytes of information and analytics, while I was still working with pen and paper. Quite simply, while my industry was transforming, I was not.

I realized I had a choice: I could continue the service provision model we had for the last 10 years and possibly follow the sales decline into retirement. Or, I could learn the new technology. At my age and level in the organization, that meant I would be the “old dog learning new tricks.” But I knew Option A was not for me.

So, in my late 50s, I joined our digital production crew — with an average age of 33 — where I began to learn once again.

If my story sounds familiar, then you are aware of two key workplace trends — generational challenges and digital transformation. The 2 go together.

Sometimes, digital transformation is less about the organization and the market than it is about the people who adopt and then craft technology and data for better business results. The generational challenge results from having 4, and in some places, 5 generations working side by side in the workplace.

These 2 realities, discussed in combination as an emerging trend in our recent report, Talent Reimagined, created my situation: a knowledgeable, experienced senior practitioner needing to update his skill set and mind-set about his industry.

Benefits of Reverse Mentoring for Digital Transformation

In the best mentoring relationships, both people learn.

Reverse mentoring is no different. When younger employees share their knowledge with more experienced workers, it boosts both groups’ level of understanding, communication, and collaboration. Beyond flipping the traditional hierarchy, it can also facilitate other strategic organizational goals, such as increasing retention of millennial workers and fostering more inclusivity and cross-generational camaraderie.

Through the reverse mentoring arrangement, the younger mentor is exposed to other areas and departments in the organization, has an opportunity to expand his or her network, develop a greater executive presence, and gains access to the strategic thinking of more experienced leaders.

And senior executives who are willing to learn from the digital natives in their workforce gain new skills. Sometimes these skills are technical, of course, but there are other aspects of younger workers’ mindsets that can be leveraged too — new thinking, fresh perspective, and, my favorite, the simple energy they often bring to working on something they are passionate about.

So, how do senior leaders tap into this knowledge and energy?

2 Keys to a Successful Reverse Mentoring Partnership

My story may be helpful here. When I made my decision to learn about new systems and grow new technical abilities I did not have, I knew I needed to reach out to the younger and more digitally savvy leaders inside my group and be willing to learn from them. And I needed to do this as a peer — not a senior manager, their superior.

In the process, I learned two important lessons that I hope will benefit others who find themselves in a similar position.

  1. Prepare to learn.

The senior manager needs to make a conscious and intentional effort to find and work with a younger mentor. The senior member needs to be ready to learn, open to new ideas, willing to try something new, and most important, prepared to make mistakes.

Above all, they must be humble enough to set aside their perception of authority and privilege brought on by age and experience for the knowledge and guidance of someone younger.

Once the senior manager is ready to do these things, he or she is ready for reverse mentoring.

  1. Follow traditional guidelines — with a twist.

In a “normal” or traditional mentoring relationship, the responsibility for beginning and sustaining the relationship falls more on the senior member. Why? Because the junior member may not have the confidence to repeatedly reach out and set up meetings to talk or hold the senior member accountable for late or missed appointments.

As the relationship deepens, the responsibility becomes more shared, but success depends heavily on the more experienced leader to begin the momentum.

Reverse mentoring is similar and generally follows these guidelines:

  • Agree on the purpose of your mentorship. This might be sharing skills around technology, data, information, insight, or even changing a mindset about privilege.
  • Identify norms for the relationship. This should include how to communicate, when and where to meet, language (using informal terms as opposed to formal hierarchical terms), and most importantly, confidentiality.
  • Establish and maintain specific times for contact. Mentoring research reflects that the best meetings are scheduled, yet informal. For senior leaders, this may mean getting out of the office and going to non-traditional work spaces such as coffee shops, bookstores, combined work spaces, or maker-spaces. Informal meetings allow the relationship to deepen through shared personal experience.
  • Understand when the mentoring relationship is over — in other words, when the initial purpose is met and it is time to move on to something else. At that point, you can determine whether to allow the relationship to move forward or go on hiatus. Some mentoring relationships may run for decades. Others end much sooner, after the initial purpose is achieved. It’s always best if the two people inside the mentoring relationship are intentional about how it will go forward, and when it will wrap up.

Here is the twist, and it is very important. In reverse mentoring, the senior member maintains the responsibility for beginning and sustaining the life of the relationship. This is for 2 reasons:

  1. The senior leader may be in the same generation as the junior member’s parents — this provides an implied authority that the senior leader must remain aware of, and sensitive to, in the relationship.
  2. The senior leader has the experience and expertise to begin and benefit from the relationship. While the relationship benefits both parties, it primarily benefits the senior member, so the senior member is responsible for beginning the relationship, establishing guidelines, and ensuring the junior member is as comfortable as possible in the relationship.

In my case, the acceptance that I needed to learn did not come easily. But I learned to trust my mentor and myself and began to personally transform within my new environment. Thanks to my younger mentor, I learned about the technology, how it worked, and how to leverage the data it created.

Who says experience is always the best teacher?

To learn more about reverse mentoring as a strategy that prepares your organization for digital transformation, explore our Trends Report, Talent Reimagined.

Emerging Leadership Trends Report


About the Author

Clemson Turregano is CCL’s Global Director of Custom Solutions.

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