Traditional business mentoring has been around for a long time. For example, Socrates famously mentored Plato until his untimely death in 399 B.C. In the traditional business mentoring model, the mentor is older, wiser, and more experienced than the younger, naive, and less experienced mentee. A common metaphor for traditional business mentoring is the “passing of the torch,” with the older employee passing key knowledge and know-how to the younger generation.
Conversely, reverse mentoring is a relatively new twist on business mentoring. It turns the traditional business mentoring model on its head, by making the younger, less experienced person the mentor and the older, more experienced person the mentee. It is about acknowledging the strengths that younger individuals can bring to a business mentoring relationship.
Jack Welch, longtime CEO of GE, popularized reverse mentoring in the late 1990’s when he noticed the increasingly important role of technology in the workplace, as well as a growing technological skills gap among his older executives. He then paired up the luddite executives with younger, more technologically savvy employees so that the younger generation could help shrink the technological skills gap of the executives.
Today, companies are using this mentoring model to support increasingly divergent objectives. Besides helping executives develop their technology skills, organizations are using this mentoring model to achieve the following goals:
1. Help executives get more in sync with the company’s target market.
For some organizations, the target market looks a lot like some of the younger generation of workers. For example, a company might be targeting professionals in their 20’s, or parents who are juggling careers and raising small children. In these cases, reverse mentoring can help executives who are well outside the target demographic get a better understanding of the people the organization is trying to serve. There’s nothing like live, one-on-one discussions to glean the perspective of the target market. Customer research data is one thing, but learning about the target demographic straight from the source can be a richer, more meaningful learning experience for executives.
2. Retain younger employees.
Millennials are known as the “job-hopping” generation, as organizations struggle to retain them. Although Millennials have earned a reputation for being entitled, there’s a little more to the story than that. More so than other generations before them, Millennials want to make a positive impact through their work, and if they aren’t able to do that in their current workplace, they don’t tend to be loyal to employers. Mentoring gives Millennials the opportunity to to help others, and it recognizes their strengths and expertise. It also gives Millennials the recognition that they crave, and helps employers retain younger employees for the long haul.
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3. Increase diversity and inclusion.
The workforce is getting more and more diverse with each year passing, and employers of choice are working to make their workplaces inclusive for people of all backgrounds. However, top leadership at large organizations is still overwhelmingly white and male. Reverse mentoring can be an integral strategy to achieve DEI targets. When executives are paired up with younger professionals that tend to be more diverse in terms of race and sex, they gain a different perspective and are able to be more empathetic towards people from different backgrounds. This can lead to executives making policies and other important decisions that take into account the needs of women employees and employees of different races. This can help make the workplace more inclusive as well as help a more diverse pool of candidates get promoted.
4. Drive organizational culture change.
Sometimes, organizational cultures can be at odds with business goals. For example, if a company wants to become more creative and innovative, it’s a problem if the culture supports top-down decision-making, formal positions of authority, and discourages risk-taking. For some organizations working to change their culture, particularly to become flatter or more collaborative, reverse mentoring can help. It can encourage executives to listen more closely to younger employees and let them lead, while at the same time empowering up-and-coming professionals.
5. Develop mentoring skills in all employees.
While traditional business mentoring can help both mentors and mentees improve their interpersonal and communication skills, reverse mentoring kicks the skill development up a notch for younger employees, in particular. For example, a mentoring relationship may be a younger professional’s first foray into teaching others and giving feedback. These experiences can help younger professionals be more prepared for future managerial roles.
6. Bridge generational gaps in the workplace.
In some organizations, harmful stereotypes towards people from different generations abound. Millennials are too entitled, Boomers are technologically inept and self-centered, and Gen Xers are, well, largely overlooked. When these stereotypes permeate an organization, it interferes with relationship-building and collaboration across age groups. For organizations that want to improve cross-generational relationships, mentoring can help individuals gain a new appreciation for people from different age groups.
Reverse mentoring provides several advantages to organizations over traditional business mentoring. Consider this twist on business mentoring to stay competitive and become an employer of choice.