Reverse Mentoring: Developing leadership in the young & learning in the not-so-young

Listening in to the orientation session at a ‘Becoming a Mentor’ program, the organizer repeatedly reminded us that we, the mentors, get more out of mentoring than that what we put in. That mentoring is a two way process and apart from the satisfaction of being able to guide and help someone in their path to a good life, the mentor greatly benefits.  

I sat there thinking that it was quite true. After each mentoring session I could go home feeling all warmed up inside, much like the feeling after a tot of brandy in a coffee, satisfied that my previous hour changed a life. That the ‘life’ was going to someday look back on the mentoring sessions and say that ‘yours truly’ made a difference. Yes, that story has a ‘happily ever after’ kind of ending.

All this is true. Mentoring in the traditional sense of the term is a relationship between mentor and mentee where the mentor provides guidance and direction to the mentee, who is usually younger. Areas like clarity on life and career, different perspectives and cultural values, opportunities to develop new networks, access to new resources that lead to greater likelihood of career success are part of the mentoring ‘syllabus’. Organizations that have a structured mentoring program benefit a great deal by developing the pipeline of talent and setting up a structure to transfer formal leadership skills. Employee retention, improved communication and a demonstrable commitment by the employer to the employee are the up-sides to mentoring.

All this sounds perfect in the world today, right? Not entirely so. The work force today has demographics quite different from those of 15 years ago. The channels of communication are changing and on an almost daily basis - new social networks, new technologies are stressing the efficiencies of the ‘old experienced hands’. Experience is no longer the only teacher. 

With a growing generational gap and shifting expectations, leaders are faced with new challenges. If these senior leaders want to stay relevant and ahead in an age where digital natives will soon represent half the global workforce and will soon be a force to contend with, they will need to stay on the cutting ‘digital’ edge. 

Reverse mentoring is not entirely a new concept. In 2014, Microsoft came out with a reverse mentoring program. Realizing that millennials consume services quite differently and understanding that this is key to business strategy and execution, senior executives are engaged in this program where they turn to their younger colleagues for insights into what they value, insights into more information and for guidance through the millennial maze.

I can almost hear you dear reader saying, but this is what analytics does. It collects millions of data points and with clever computing spews forth information that understands the behavior of the consumer and drives business decisions. Yes, it does. But analytics is used mostly for the external customer not the internal customer, your employee.

Reverse mentoring is a win win program.The older manager mentoring a younger colleague switch roles where the younger colleague becomes the mentor. It goes beyond getting an insight ONLY for business decisions. Senior leaders get to know and appreciate the need for new ways of communicating and newer trends and the younger ones get invaluable insights into the larger picture and leadership. Exposed to new behaviors and motivations, senior leaders can better understand what drives the younger workforce and how one can attract the best of talent. This way companies can stay relevant as employers and can engage with an important customer segment. Understanding what makes them ‘tick’ will make companies explore newer marketing ideas.

My own experience with engaging in informal reverse mentoring has helped me learn better collaboration and the ability to leverage the strengths of those I manage. As is managing and motivating a younger workforce is challenging. Reverse mentoring helps bridge this divide. One finds, very often, that we are leading people who are doing jobs that we have never done and probably didn't exist before this time. Gone are the days when a 40+ year old dictating what should be happening without listening to opinions and experts, exists.

When all is said and done it isn't only about learning new tools and technologies and behaviors. It challenges one to move out of their comfort zones and at some point becomes an introspective tool to reflect on managing styles. More power to reverse mentoring! 

The author is CDO with Investronaut - Vishwakarma Group & a Mentor with Katalyst an organization that provides an enabling environment to enhance the employability of girl students pursuing professional degrees or courses.

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