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Reverse mentoring: novel necessity or condescending craze?

Posted on: 4th December 2017

Reading time:  6 mins

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The idea of having the young share their expertise with older workers is gaining momentum as the pace of digital change accelerates. But does it work?

The idea of having the young share their expertise with older workers is gaining momentum as the pace of digital change accelerates. But does it work?


The idea of having the young share their expertise with older workers is gaining momentum as the pace of digital change accelerates. But does it work?

How proficient are you in Python? Are you suffering from a case of FOMO? If you’re baffled by these questions, you’re not alone. It can seem like the younger generation are speaking a different language, shaped by the technological upheaval they were born into.

So it’s no wonder that company leaders are trying to bridge the divide: they want to work more effectively with their younger employees and to understand a new generation of customers. All this is driving the adoption of reverse mentoring programmes.

Now offered by companies such as the BBC and Microsoft, reverse mentoring sees senior employees paired with a millennial, meaning someone from the generation who reached adulthood around the turn of the century. The idea is that the junior partner will bring the senior up to speed on the latest developments in technology and culture, helping their company integrate generations of employees and compete more effectively.

Reverse mentoring began just before millennials entered the workforce. In 1999, General Electric used young staff members to teach older executives how to use the internet. In recent years, it has gained more traction as the rapid pace of digital disruption sends shockwaves through C-suites.

But can senior staff with decades of experience really learn things from colleagues fresh out of university that will change their company? Or is reverse mentoring just a fashionable gimmick that could do more harm than good? 

Making reverse mentoring work means being aware of the risk that a well-meaning programme might make older employees feel under-appreciated and irrelevant. So here’s the lowdown on what reverse mentoring can achieve – and the kind of practices that are best avoided.

Lessons from the younger generation

Youth culture may be fast-moving, but that also means it’s short-lived. Investing time in staying up-to-date with the cutting edge of hipness might make sense for your marketing managers and product developers. But it’s likely to be a distraction for other company leaders.

Even the most strait-laced companies and departments can benefit from the technical skills that are increasingly common among the younger generation, however, such as the programming language Python. It’s one of the most popular languages, and is used everywhere from web applications to Nasa.

Executives needn’t write code themselves, but understanding it can mean they know more about the details that create the customer’s experience and can set better strategic priorities for the digital side of their business. As Jon Einkauf, a product manager for Amazon AWS who studied computer science as part of his MBA told Harvard Business Review: “I can ask intelligent questions, I can push back on the developers when necessary, and I am confident that I could teach myself anything else I need to learn.”


Beware the myths

Companies are certainly showing a willingness to invest big bucks tapping the supposed unique qualities of young people. US organisations alone spent almost $80 million on “generational consulting” last year, according to Source Global Research. 

Apart from being more tech-savvy, countless surveys suggest Generation Y is more likely to “expect” a sense of purpose in their jobs and more diverse experiences. Understanding these attitudes, it’s argued, will give employers more scope to attract talent.

But it’s easy to overstate the uniqueness of this younger generation. Consider the myth that today’s youth are less devoted to a single employer. A recent study by The Resolution Foundation found that millennials in the UK have been about 30 per cent less likely to move jobs in their 20s than Generation X before them. It turns out that career-move opportunities have more to do with – surprise, surprise – the prevailing state of the economy. 

There is some truth to the stereotype that older people don't adopt new technologies as quickly as young people. According to the Pew Research Center, only 62 per cent of US Internet users over the age of 65 used Facebook last year and just eight per cent used Instagram.

“I grew up before the Internet and my generation still have a mental model of completeness,” says James Purnell, the BBC’s director of radio and education. Last month Purnell gave every member of the corporation’s radio management a mentor aged under 30. “We still believe that we’ll be able to read all the information, understand all the options and make a definitive decision. But the world is too complex, changing and uncertain for that.”


Getting the best of both worlds

Stereotypes can be misleading: millennials can be technophobes and today’s digital world was largely built by baby boomers such as Steve Jobs and members of Generation X like Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin. This truth has prompted some companies, including the fund management giant Vanguard, to drop reverse mentoring in favour of collaboration between people of different skill sets. If there happens to be a large gap in their ages, so be it. 

Where age is a differentiator, it’s important that the highest-ranking executives don’t opt out. They need to clearly signal the opportunities of reverse mentoring and not make it seem as if older workers are being singled out as dinosaurs.

Alternatively, you can focus on making it a cross-mentoring programme, where the exchange of skills is truly a two-way street. Because while senior employees could use better digital skills, Python-versed millennials are likely to benefit from learning more about face-to-face communication in the workplace. After all, the companies that thrive in the future are likely to be ones that are fluent in both the languages of technology and their native tongue.

Topics in this article

  • Work Trends


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