Reverse mentoring isn’t just the latest buzzword. The concept has been around for a while, arguably starting back in 1999 when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy for most companies (and still called the World Wide Web). That’s when Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, required 500 of his top executives to partner with their younger employees to learn the ins and outs of this newfangled internet thing. While some of the execs bristled at the thought of being trained by such young coworkers, the program was a success and helped bridge a generational divide.
Generations and the Digital Divide
Millennials make up more than a third of the U.S. labor force, and Generation Z (people born between 1996 and 2015) is now entering the workforce, but a lot of Baby Boomers (1946–1965) aren’t yet ready for retirement. This jumble of generations is creating an interesting scenario for businesses when it comes to institutional skills and abilities.
Many Millennials and all of Gen Z are known as Digital Natives because they’ve never lived in a world without computers and the internet. Digital Natives are extremely comfortable with technology and consider it to be an essential part of their lives; most of them are early adopters of the latest and greatest app or device.
Many Boomers, on the other hand, are hesitant to adopt the latest technology and might struggle with adapting to new software. This resistance can also become a mindset and seep into the adoption other facets of a rapidly changing, multi-generational and diverse workplace.
Initially, mentees and mentors might be unsure of a reverse mentoring program’s intent. Senior executives being mentored by an employee 30 years their junior could get the impression that the company is trying to push the older generation out of the workforce and into retirement. At the same time, mentors could feel that the senior executives might not take them seriously and view them as kids. Addressing and overcoming those two concerns enables a reverse mentoring program to work and foster a stronger workplace culture.
Below, we outline six steps that will help you create a reverse mentoring program for your company.
Build a Reverse Mentoring Program from the Ground Up
- Define the purpose of the program
Before you even begin, you need to know why you’re building the program in the first place. The purpose could be: To bridge generational gaps or to encourage innovation by actively asking for input and advice from younger employees.
- Consider making it part of your existing mentoring program (if you have one)
Depending on the agreed upon purpose, it might be more inclusive to drop the “reverse” from the program. Mentoring is all about learning and collaboration, so age doesn’t necessarily have to be a factor.
- Assess personalities and skills
Personality-wise, it would be risky to pair an introvert with an introvert because that could result in a go-nowhere mentorship. Try to connect more experienced with less experienced employees. For example, pair a Millennial social media whiz with a senior executive who hasn’t touched her LinkedIn profile since she created it 10 years ago. Keep in mind that “experience” doesn’t have to be related to technical expertise; it can be expanded to lived experiences within a culture, gender identity or sexual preference.
- Build a program framework
A mentoring program needs starting point guidelines to help ensure success. When rolling out the program, you should include expectations such as: Set up a monthly 1-hour touchbase. Stay open minded. Recap meeting with an email to track progress.
- Suggest conversation starters, such as:
- Unconscious and explicit bias facing minority groups (ethnicity, sexual preference, gender identification, disability) at work
- The importance of gender neutrality and using requested pronouns
- Views on work/life balance
- What’s new in the world from both perspectives
- Social media presence and “how-to” discussions
- Put the first meeting on the calendar
It’s a little extra effort but often, schedules and projects get in the way and then suddenly, the mentorship doesn’t even get off the ground. Put a recurring meeting on the participants’ calendars that they can change if something comes up and they need to reschedule.
Of course, this list is just a basic start. To effectively build a reverse mentoring program it must be supported by leadership and company culture. If you already have a mentoring program in place, you’re 75% there. If you don’t have one, it’s worth considering the value one can bring to bridge the generational gaps that can undermine your teams and hinder your company’s ability to innovate.
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