Reverse Mentoring: 3 Simple Steps That Will Transform Your Mentoring Program

Chetan Reddy

Business people discussing in conference room --- Image by © Purestock/SuperStock/CorbisWho was your first mentor?

This shouldn’t be a hard question. For most of us, it’s our parents. Did they impart wisdom and life experiences, guiding you through those awkward years of adolescence? Absolutely!

But guess what – you were their mentor too. Perhaps you taught them how to use a computer, send a tweet, or maybe even control a drone.

With this in mind, it’s easy to question why mentoring is a one-way street in the corporate world, with senior executives mentoring young employees. Can’t it go the other way too?

How to turn mentoring into a dynamic, bi-directional relationship

Mr. Manager gives a life talk, and Ms. Millennial receives the lay of the land regarding work at the company. Ms. Millennial smiles and nods, throwing in a few “yup, got it”’s while absorbing only 25% of everything.The conversation ends with the two shaking hands and Ms. Millennial going back to her cubicle.

Repeat every other week at 10:30 AM.

Though this is a somewhat simplistic representation of mentoring in today’s workplace, the same scenario plays out in many offices across the globe. Traditional mentoring is an entirely one-sided relationship. It is effective to a degree, as older managers do have more industry experience to pass down. However, it also allows the concept of superiority to enter. Many – though not all – mentors believe that they do not have anything to learn from a “lowly” employee. They create an “us versus them” mentality, driving a wedge between older and younger generations in the organization.

One way to fix this problem is through the implementation of reverse mentoring. Developed by Jack Welch when he was chief executive of General Electric, this concept relies on younger employees teaching their workplace superiors new technology, such as effective content promotion on social media. With the current influx of Millennials in the workplace, organizations need to candidly discuss how Millennials can get the help and development opportunities they need while also offering their own advice in return.

Interested in a new approach to mentoring? Here are three steps that can help you get underway:

1. Cultivate an inclusive culture

A sense of belonging and worth are paramount to maintain high levels of employee engagement and retention, as discussed by my earlier blog on Uber and CMU. Companies whose employees believe their experiences and thoughts matter and impact the business develop a culture of serious trust and mutual respect. This is only furthered through reverse mentoring, in which Millennials are trusted to provide insights to the senior executive. Allowing younger employees to be mentors as well as mentees enables friendships to develop and ideas to be exchanged instead of pushing them down unwilling throats. Keep younger employees in the loop by asking them for their own opinions on problems. You will be surprised at the creativity, and more importantly, candor of some Millennials within your company.

2. Don’t eliminate “regular” mentoring

Though you may decide to have an intern teach you the inner workings of Tumblr and ways to effectively leverage the communities’ varied interests, it is important that communication remains two-sided. Mentoring should always involve conversation, and the best conversations are the ones that allow for equal contributions. For example, if the aforementioned employee wants to start a Reddit promotion plan after they gave you a tour of the site, you can then teach them how to work their way through the corporate web to get their plan approved.

Synthesizing the ideas and experiences of the two generations – rather than just one solely teaching the other – eventually builds bridges rather than silos. The role of the older mentor is to fine-tune ideas and promise of a younger mentee to better help the company grow. Concurrently, the younger mentor is tasked with teaching and helping the older mentee develop ways in which they can improve their skills. With this approach, younger employees are free to hone their ideas or be critiqued in a more sophisticated manner.

3. Keep it in perspective

It is always tough to tell a bright, energetic employee who has been developing an idea for a long time that the company can’t act out their plan. Reverse mentoring inevitably will deliver this experience when a younger employee, who may not be privy to strategic and political decisions in the company, proposes an idea that needs to be nipped. Do not let the persuasiveness of a single employee sway you into doing things that are against your own strategic subconscious. Though your interns may have some exquisite insight into the distribution of a particular product, their pitches may not showcase a full understanding of your social promotion strategies. Hopefully, you can take what they taught you about distribution and use it later on down the road.

Mentoring is all about putting more tools in someone else’s toolbox. Young or old, we all can benefit from some new ones. Parents, maybe listening to your kids is the best choice after all!

Want more tactics to strengthen your workforce? See How Empowering Employees Creates a More Engaged Workforce.

About Chetan Reddy

Chetan Reddy is a Duke sophomore studying Economics. He was a corporate marketing strategy intern during the Summer 2015.