I first started talking about reverse mentoring in 2007, when I did a presentation to Campbell Soup global leadership about the Millennial generation. The company went on to develop a so-termed “bridge network” to connect promising young professionals with entrenched Baby Boomer executives.
Reverse mentoring is loosely defined as the process of a less experienced employee offering guidance to a more experienced one. It often includes a relationship that works both ways: seasoned employees can offer advice on how to build a successful career, while newbies can provide a fresh perspective on organizational processes and innovation – especially where it involves evolving technology.
Although currently gaining steam, this is not a new concept. According to the Wall Street Journal, it was initially championed by Jack Welch in the late 90s when he was CEO of General Electric. He ordered 500 top-level executives to reach out to people below them to learn how to use the Internet. In return, the younger professionals achieved greater visibility in the company.
If reverse mentoring sounds intriguing to you but there isn’t an established program in your company, here are some suggested steps to get started.
The idea is to choose a mentoring partner who is strong in the skillset at which you are trying to improve and with whom you can converse easily. In making your selection, don’t make assumptions (for example, not all twenty-somethings are well-versed in every new social media technology, and not all Baby Boomers can provide great advice on climbing the ladder). Get to know your target personally and professionally before approaching her.
As with any mentoring relationship, it’s important to set expectations upfront. As we talked about last year, you should propose specifics for the engagement, including what you would like to learn and how you will help each other, when and where you will meet, and an end date.
There were likely be other benefits you weren’t anticipating, so be flexible to new knowledge that arises from your mentoring meetings. For instance, an older professional may have expected his younger partner to advise him on about online personal branding, but maybe the less seasoned professional has some fresh ideas for improving on a company process in the more seasoned one’s jurisdiction.
The tendency in reverse mentoring relationships is to revert to the old model of older advising younger. Recognize that this will only work if you try to keep the scales balanced, constantly looking for ways to help one another. This might include making an introduction or assisting on a project. Creativity is key!