Traditional mentoring involves someone with greater experience developing a less experienced person, with its origins often cited as being in ancient Greece from where the term is derived.
During the pre-industrial age, when craft work was the norm, mentors would typically be master craftsmen that would support apprentices on their professional journey, i.e. apprentice – journeyman – craftsman – master craftsmen. Such journeys would often culminate in membership of a professional guild … and an attendant responsibility to mentor the next generation of craft workers. Such practices were well suited to a world in which technological, social and intra-generational change progressed at a slow pace and the skills and practices learned by one generation were relevant to the world occupied by successive generations.
Reverse Mentoring is a relatively new concept brought about by:
- The rapid (inter-generational) evolution of new and emerging technologies, and
- A separate but related acceleration of social change and the expectations held by different generations (often exemplified by the profile descriptions of ‘Baby Boomers’, ‘Generation X’ and ‘Millennials’ – see box below).
Changing aspirations – introducing the Millennials
Baby Boomers (b. 1946 – 1965) are currently the largest generation of active workers. Research has shown that boomers identify their strengths as optimism and a willingness to work long hours. This generation grew up in organizations with large corporate hierarchies (Achievement-driven organizations). In contrast, many Generation X employees (b. 1966 – 1985) will have experienced flatter management structures and teamwork-based job roles (Pluralistic organizations). But our emerging experience of Millennials (b. 1986 – 2005) is that they have a different outlook on what they expect from their employment experience.
Millennials are generally well educated, skilled in technology, self-confident and able to multi-task. They have high expectations for themselves, and prefer to work collegiately rather than as individuals. Furthermore, Millennials have grown up in the disruptive world of the internet and social media, where people’s influence is based on their current contribution and reputation, not a position established over a period of time.
Millennials seek challenges, yet work/life balance is of major importance to them. They don’t share the Baby Boomers’ belief that hard work and long hours will bring rewards over an extended career. And in a world where the more senior individuals are Baby Boomers who are managing individuals and teams composed of Generation X’ers and Millennials, misaligned expectations can create misaligned workforces. Unsurprisingly, Baby Boomer managers have less issues with Generation X staff and more issues with Millennial staff.
The Millennial Generation is the largest age group to emerge since the baby boom generation and, as this group grows significantly as a proportion and become increasingly senior members of the workforce over the next 20 years, organizations and their leaders will need to make adjustments in their engagement models. Employers will want to consider carefully what strategies they will use to motivate, cultivate and retain valuable Millennial employees now and into the future.
Given the different, but related, accelerated changes in society and the workplace (in technologies and in intra-generational expectations of life and work), Reverse Mentoring has two potential areas of focus when practiced within an organization.
Millennials are so-called ‘digital natives’, and adapt seamlessly.
- How technology is currently being used (e.g. ‘Facebook’ replaced by ‘Instagram’ … ‘Messages’ replaced by ‘What’s App’ … for both individual and group communications).
- Increasing use of search engines for ‘just-in-time’ information, choices, decision-making and learning.
Social Values focus
Changing attitudes to work and working relationships have changed significantly over the one to two decades.
- Insights into the lives and experiences of different age groups/genders/lifestyle/ethnic backgrounds.
- Understanding what is important in the working environment for different age groups.
- Accessing what people need to feel comfortable to be themselves and make their best contribution in a business environment.
- Fine-tuning how to improve inclusion.
As mentioned earlier, a true understanding between Millennials and Baby Boomers creates the greatest challenge … on the face of it each generation typically does not ‘get’ what the other is truly about … and why. Some more enlightened business are adopting Reverse Mentoring as means of bridging the gap.
The major challenge of Reverse Mentoring is to establish an open and honest relationship that will accommodate authentic discussion and create a joint learning experience.
Ground rules to creating an open environment to facilitate learning
- Agree the broad Purpose for engaging in the relationship, i.e. “To facilitate the building of an inclusive, authentic and trusting environment that will enable more senior members of staff to have broader perspectives when making decisions”.
- Agree what each person wants to achieve specifically and how success will be measured
- Meet regularly (monthly?) off site
- Agree confidentiality
- Acknowledge likely unconscious biases and sensitivities on both sides
- Agree how disagreements and sensitivities will be handled
- Run for 6 months and then stand back and evaluate effectiveness
- Communication styles
- Cultural knowledge – how well do reverse-mentees know their teams
- Leadership – uncomfortable situations for reverse-mentees
- Social ‘no-no’s’ – things that can’t be explored in the wider environment
- Take the initiative to set it up. Book the meetings.
- Be prepared to step outside your comfort zone.
- Be willing to explore alternative views and be open to challenges.
- Agree the topics of conversation ahead of the meeting.
- Apply the value of the reverse-mentor’s experience to your own thinking.
- Respect confidentiality.
- Be honest.
- Ensure the reverse-mentor remains ‘safe’, i.e. never feels they’ve ‘put their foot in it’ with the boss!
- Encourage reflection and analysis in your reverse-mentee.
- Explore scenarios in your experience but not necessarily in the reverse-mentee’s.
- Act as a sounding board and challenge assumptions and behaviours constructively.
- Help your reverse-mentee reach their own decisions.
- Be honest.