The other day I had lunch with a young woman who interned with my company a few years ago and now works for a large educational institution. Our conversation ran the gamut: observations on organizational restructuring, ruminations on how technology is changing the way we work and discussions on the merits of seeking a second advanced degree.
About midway through the lunch, it hit me: I’m learning as much in this conversation as Samantha is. We were a real-life example of reverse mentoring, which places a younger professional in the role of mentoring a more experienced colleague. Four years ago my relationship with Samantha started with me in the role of sage, imparting words of wisdom to a new college graduate; now our relationship has evolved to the point where she’s teaching me as well.
When reverse mentoring got its start, it typically revolved around a technology need: a tech-savvy millennial showing 50-something executives the ropes in how to navigate a new technology. As the idea of younger professionals mentoring more seasoned colleagues has gained popularity, more companies are now expanding the concept beyond learning the latest digital tool.
Companies such as Hartford Insurance Co. have reverse mentoring programs, with positive results. In one company that implemented reverse mentoring, 80 percent of the participants rated the project "extremely effective" or "effective" for business practices and 97 percent rated it "extremely effective" or "effective" for their personal and professional growth.
The wonderful thing about reverse mentoring is that it creates yet another avenue for communication across any number of potential boundaries: age, experience, job title. Here’s how you can make the most of mentoring in reverse, whether you are starting out in your career, or have logged many miles in the world of work.
The millennial generation is accustomed to group projects and making contributions from the moment they join a company. Reverse mentoring offers many benefits to younger people in the workforce, including:
- Face time with more seasoned employees who might someday act as their sponsor
- A chance to make a tangible difference in a colleague’s life
- Reciprocal mentoring from the veteran co-worker they’re mentoring
Experienced colleagues, whether they’re in management roles or are senior-level peers to young workers, can also benefit from reverse mentoring. Many who have taken advantage of advice from younger workers have reported:
- Stronger communication between the generations
- Better understanding of how younger workers perceive important business issues
- Improved comfort with newer technologies
Here are five tips for finding your mentor:
- Recognize that mentors come in all forms. They may be older, younger or the same age as you. They may or may not play a formal leadership role in your company.
- It’s up to you to find a mentor. Even if your organization has a formal mentoring program, you can still foster important relationships outside the program boundaries. In fact, I strongly encourage you to step up and take charge of building mentoring relationships. You are your own best advocate.
- Give both parties an easy out. When you make the request, offer to do a trial run meeting so that neither party feels obligated if the fit doesn’t seem right.
- Make it easy to be your mentor. Do all the scheduling and advance leg work. Be willing to meet when it’s convenient for your mentor. If the meeting entails a meal, foot the bill.
- Realize that sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there. If, after a few meetings, it is obvious that you and your mentor aren’t clicking, then it’s best to diplomatically wrap up the mentoring relationship. Remember, mentoring doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment. It’s better to part while the relationship is on solid footing than to drag things out.
Nearly everyone with a strong work ethic, competence in their job and the desire to help others has something to offer their colleagues. No longer the purview of just the “wise elder,” mentoring is now an excellent way for employees of all experience levels to contribute to the professional development of their colleagues.