In a traditional mentorship, a seasoned professional works with a less experienced and often younger colleague to show the individual the ropes and guide the person through his or her career. But as the business world and its technology continue to evolve, it's becoming increasingly common for those younger professionals to turn the tables and share their digital skills and perspectives with their older counterparts.
For many organizations, this practice of "reverse mentoring" is a win-win, said Molly DeZurik, content curator at generational research company BridgeWorks. Millennials gain a greater sense of purpose and empowerment, and older employees gain insight and understanding. But DeZurik cautioned against implementing a reverse-mentorship program for the sake of trying out a trend — it has to serve a purpose.
"Millennials aspire to be leaders one day," she said. "Empowering younger workers to voice their observations paves a fruitful path for millennials, once management positions become a reality."
"The key is for leadership to create a culture that listens and learns," added Nikhil Hasija, CEO of Azuqua, a company that synchronizes data across multiple workflow apps. "If your team can keep an open mind to new ideas, regardless of where they come from, then reverse mentorship becomes a lot easier."
DeZurik said that getting people on board may be a challenge at first, but sharing success stories will get employees excited about the impact these information exchanges can have. Companies like Target and United Health have benefited hugely from similar programs, she said. [See Related Story: Want to Advance Your Career? Try Peer Mentoring]
Encouraging reverse mentorship
It can sometimes be difficult for a senior leader to ask for help, especially if that person is embarrassed to admit to not knowing how to do something, Sandra Wiley, a senior consultant at Boomer Consulting, wrote in a Journal of Accountancy article. A relationship where reverse mentoring is encouraged is the opportunity to make it happen, she said.
In her piece, Wiley outlined four steps you can take to establish a reverse-mentorship program at your company:
- Identify the need or skill gap of a senior team member, and match that person with an appropriate younger team member who can help.
- Have the senior team member approach his or her younger mentor with specific requests about what he or she needs assistance with.
- Allow the mentor and mentee to decide when, where and for how long they will meet. They should set up regular meetings with calendar requests and agenda items.
- Remind the mentee to thank his or her younger mentor, and offer assistance with any future questions or concerns.
Advice for millennial mentors
Millennials who are given the opportunity to be a mentor shouldn't take it for granted, said DeZurik: Remaining humble is key.
"Millennials should keep the concept of evolution versus revolution in mind throughout these meetings," she said. "The ideas they suggest aren't going to happen overnight, and a patient perspective will go a long way in earning older workers' trust. "
Hasija agreed, noting that younger mentors need to be sensitive to their colleagues' egos.
"Understand their motivations, and respect their perspective," he told Business News Daily. "Add to your colleague's experience with your own without disregarding their opinion."
Advice for older mentees
DeZurik reminded Gen X-ers and Boomers that millennials on the other side of the boardroom aren't kids; they're the future of the business. Older workers who embrace these unconventional mentorships gain firsthand insight into what makes their younger colleagues tick — how they think and communicate, and how evolving technology will impact the company and industry, she said.
Companies like Azuqua embrace this mentality, and base their business strategy on the unique viewpoints each generational group brings to the table, said Hasija.
"The industry veteran teaching us what happened when Salesforce did something similar [to what we're doing] 10 years ago is just as valuable as the new college grad telling us how Facebook did something similar last summer when she was an intern," he said. "What we've learned as a company is that everyone needs to be open to this type of learning opportunity. The young are not inexperienced and the old are not irrelevant."