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How reverse mentorship can help drive fresh ideas, develop staff and help your business succeed

February 8, 2016

With age comes wisdom, but all too often in the business world, hubris can come along for the ride too.

After finessing business decision making for decades, executives naturally begin to conclude that their specialised knowledge, expertise and business skills mean that they always know the best way to solve a client problem, to win a major account, or to drive a workplace innovation.

After all their past successes confirm this. Subconsciously survivorship and confirmation biases are at work; good decisions are reinforced, and poor ones are forgotten – which distorts their real importance.

So, can these experienced executives learn something from Millennials? Absolutely!

How reverse-mentoring can bring fresh ideas

Reverse mentoring flips the traditional mentor-protégé model on its head as younger members of staff “mentor” their older colleagues. With the injection of fresh ideas and a new perspective, reverse mentoring counteracts the inaccurate assumptions, inane biases and business blind spots that come from being in an industry, or a role, for too long.

Originally popularised by former GE CEO Jack Welch, reverse mentoring is an approach that acknowledges everyone within an organisation has something to bring to the table.

By pairing a younger, less-experienced professional with an older executive, reverse mentoring helps young professionals gain confidence and strengthen their leadership skills while helping older executives stay up-to-date on the latest business technologies and strengthen a business’s competitive edge.

Bridging the workplace generational divide

Back in 1999 when the Internet was still in its dial-up infancy, the then-CEO of GE, Jack Welch, had a problem: how to get his older management team comfortable with using the Internet when most of them did not even have an AOL account yet?

Welch ordered 500 of his top managers to find younger employees who could teach them best practices for going online. And thus reverse mentoring was born. Since then, the practice has spread like wildfire through global corporations. Many leading businesses including Cisco, Hewlett Packard and Tesco all have reverse mentoring programmes in place.

Creating one-on-one relationships is beneficial for more than just technological elements of work and innovation; reverse mentorship is also beneficial for fostering positive attitudes and managing generational diversity. It has been shown that nearly two-thirds of older employees in the UK and Ireland expect workplace tensions to increase with the arrival of Millennials. Developing effective strategies to bridge the workplace generational divide is critical.

There are clear differences in how employees from each generation work: Millennials are digital natives, preferring digital, to face-to-face communication. Millennials, with their reputation for demanding flexible hours, higher pay and quick promotion, don’t always appreciate the relentless hours that older generations invested in order to climb through the ranks to the boardroom.

Reverse mentoring reduces these generational tensions by allowing discussion and the sharing of insights in a non-confrontational setting. Rather than seeing one another as opposing forces, reverse mentoring fosters understanding by building trust and mutual respect for what each individual has to offer a business.

Of course, as an added bonus, executives can better identify, evaluate and cultivate new talent. That’s vital for succession planning, which is essential for the fast moving, fast changing businesses of today.

The benefits reverse mentorship can bring to businesses

Key reverse mentorship benefits include:

  • Reducing intra-generational tensions
  • Encouraging frank discussion on current issues
  • Driving workplace innovation with a willingness to take risks through “trial and error” learning
  • Getting up-to-date on new technologies and platforms, including gaining a better understanding of social media trends
  • Enhancing leadership, conflict management and coaching skills for both mentor and protégé

How to start a reverse mentoring program

Successful reverse mentoring programmes are founded on a mutual willingness to set aside preconceptions and start fresh.

The goal for both mentor and protégé is to push one another outside their comfort zones in order to try new ways of working, thinking and being.

However, issuing a blanket declaration that all executives need to meet a mandatory number of times with their mentor is no way to build this trust and respect. In order for reverse mentoring to be successful, it’s critical that both parties want the relationship to deliver and share in the programme’s goals.

Following these steps will prepare your organisation to implement an effective reverse mentoring program:

1. Be a matchmaker

Like any relationship, reverse mentoring is most successful when the mentor and protégé are well matched. Consider what elements could create a common bond. For example, are they both alumni of the same university? Do they share a passion for tennis? Do they volunteer at the same charity?

While these commonalities may seem superficial, they can help foster a shared sense of identity and commitment to the mentorship.

2. Keep the relationship casual

Traditional mentor-protégé relationships typically have a clear, structured objective with regular monthly meetings. While it is still important to meet consistently, this relationship can be more casual.

Kevin Baughen, the director of a charity marketing and communications consultancy, tells the Guardian that reverse mentorships work best with less structure. “Being able to talk when an individual’s need drives the conversation seems to result in a more useful relationship,” says Baughen. I agree with that and recommend committing to the time needed, but not fixing when that time is used.

3. Set an initial goal

The first few meetings can be a bit awkward if neither party are sure what to discuss. Borrow a page from Jack Welch’s playbook and set an initial goal for the meeting. For Welch, he wanted his older executives to learn Internet best practices. Today, effective use of Social Media may be a good place to start. What starts as a basic tutorial, can then blossoms into a relationship of respect with both parties seeking one another out to learn from the other’s experience.

It may be that your company’s technology goals provide a different focus if you are falling short due to a lack of understanding or participation. Whatever the goal, once an open dialogue is established, it will be easier for both mentor and mentee to seek one another out for natural conversations.

Real benefits for your business and workplace

When each party commits to giving and receiving constructive insight, both will develop valuable leadership skills, gain behavioural insights, and build strong intra-generational relationships that are key to workplace success.

About the author

This article has been written by ByteStart’s regular business management and strategy contributor, William Buist. William is a Business Strategist, Speaker, and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club – an annual program that helps business owners to accelerate growth, harness opportunity and build their business. He is also author of two books: ‘At your fingertips’ and ‘The little book of mentoring’. See: WilliamBuist.com for more. Other articles William has written for ByteStart, include;

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