Mentoring is often seen as a way for a young IT employee to gain knowledge from an older worker, but more companies find that setting up reverse mentoring programs can provide payoffs for every employee, no matter their age or rank. The key is making sure the program is structured so that the parameters and expectations are clear for everyone.
When older workers witness young IT employees making workplace gaffes like referring to the CEO as “dude,” they may shake their heads and sigh, knowing that the young employees have a lot to learn.
But when young IT employees watch older workers struggling to understand new technology, well, dude, they may shake their heads and think the same thing.
That’s why more employers are starting to explore reverse mentoring. At Mastercard, for example, Chief Human Resource Officer Ron Garrow admits that while he’s not a technophobe, “I recognized that I had a lot to learn about operating in this new world.”
So Garrow, 51, began participating in the employer’s reciprocal mentoring program. He was partnered with 24-year-old Rebecca Kaufman who taught him how to use Twitter and get more out of professional networking sites. He says that Kaufman not only taught him how to better navigate online connections, but also gave him greater insight into younger consumers and how they are changing the industry.
Lois J. Zachary, director of the Center for Mentoring Excellence, says reverse mentoring allows a young IT person to gain exposure to a senior-level person, “and the senior-level person gets to learn something” from the young employee.
“Senior people benefit from learning what younger people are thinking about. This can help, for example, if they’re developing a new product. A senior-level person needs that input,” she says.
The young employee benefits from the “face time” with a senior employee, also allowing them to learn something such as better communication or organizational skills, she says.
Research shows that employees often learn more from one another than they do from formal training, but successful reverse mentoring programs should be structured and overseen by a human resources department, Zachary says.
She also encourages such programs to set expectations so everyone involved knows what will happen, in addition to providing a reminder that everyone should “be real.”
“Sometimes young employees will start doing a lot of posturing in these situations, starting to say what they believe senior people want to hear,” she says. “Older employees need to encourage them to be genuine.”
She adds that these groups may be brought together only for a specific purpose – such as evaluating a new product – but should not be looked upon as another focus group. “This is really more about give and get,” she says. “”The purpose of it is learning for both parties.”
Reverse mentoring became popular when Jack Welch, former General Electric chairman, ordered 500 top-level executives to connect with those below them to learn how to use the Internet. Even Welch was partnered with an employee in her 20s.
If you’re considering a reverse mentoring program for your IT people, here are some things to consider: