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Reverse Mentoring: Moving Seasoned, Younger Workers into High Gear

Reverse-mentoring isn't a new concept, nor is it widespread, though many companies could benefit from such a program.
Old and young businessmen working on a computerPioneered at General Electric some two decades ago, the basic concept is that younger employees have a lot to teach older ones about work-related matters. In some corners of the business world, the idea is broadened to encompass mentoring by employees with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well.
Why Do This?
Advocates of reverse-mentoring programs encourage people to think of them as problem-solving opportunities, not just something that's nice to do. How might one of these programs help your organization?
For the more senior employees, the benefits can include opportunities to:
  • Learn new technical skills, which, even if not essential to the job, may boost productivity,
  • Discover new areas of practical knowledge where they aren't adept and fill those gaps, for example, comfort and familiarity with social media,
  • Gain a better understanding of what motivates and discourages younger employees,
  • Get to know junior employees they might not otherwise have encountered and forge relationships with them for future team memberships or assignments.
What do junior employees get out of being a mentor? Exposure to senior staff can give them:
  • Visibility within upper management that can enhance their prospects for promotions,
  • Insights into the thought processes of those leaders,
  • A clearer understanding of the objectives and challenges of the business,
  • An opportunity to develop training skills, and
  • The satisfaction of contributing to the organization's success.
A Sensitive Topic
Cultural reverse-mentoring is optional, of course, and might be most appropriate in an organization that lacks substantial diversity in its leadership ranks. However, as with the more skills-oriented concept, prospective participants must be more than just willing to participate. They need to be committed to the process. The topic of diversity can be sensitive, so don't assume that staff will leap at the opportunity to participate.
Have Faith in the Process
As with any ambitious undertaking, setting up an effective reverse-mentoring program takes time and effort on the part of several people, including those at the top. To make that commitment, you'll need to have faith that the practical benefits will justify the effort.
It might require the perspectives of several stakeholders to get an objective read-out on whether the need is there. For example, prospective older participants might not even be aware of useful skills, knowledge or understanding they are lacking. Including possible mentors in the discussion could add valuable perspective to the mix.
Before you decide to move forward, lay out a clear set of goals and objectives by which to measure progress. Example: If your goal is to create a strong reverse-mentoring program, you might add specifics such as: Within three months, develop five relationships between participants. Six months after they start the older participants should be able to list at least six significant things they have learned or skills they have developed.
Another objective is a minimum number of meetings (or total hours of interaction) between participants over a specified period. But if you set too rigid a schedule, the routine could become more important than the substance of what is accomplished. A successful relationship between a younger mentor and older worker will evolve naturally, so long as both parties are committed to the process.
Setting overall objectives will bring the project into focus, and provide benchmarks against which to measure its success if you decide to move forward.
Matchmaking Process
When you decide to move forward with a reverse-mentoring program and announce it, invite participants to volunteer as either a mentor or the person being mentored. Don't expect to be swamped. It'll probably take a few "early adopters" to get the ball rolling before others decide to jump in. That's OK. However, if interest is minimal, that may mean you haven't laid the proper groundwork. One way to prime the pump is to be the first to volunteer to be mentored.
Ideally, the number of people seeking a mentor will approximate the number who are interested in being a mentor. How you handle the matchmaking process will depend on the size of your organization, how well people already know each other and the alignment of interests and expertise of both parties.
Assuming you move forward, the pairs of mentors and their "students" should establish their own objectives for the mentorship to stay on track. It's also generally a good idea to set an end date for the relationship, so that people know in advance they have an easy out if the relationship or process doesn't prove fruitful. Or, the mentorship can always be extended.
Pulling the Plug
The same can be true for the overall program itself. Set at least a tentative end date. If the program fails to meet the goals you have set for it, you'll know when to pull the plug. Then again, if it turns out to be a roaring success, you can push the end date back, or drop the end date entirely.
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