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Reverse Mentoring: The Big Benefits to Learning From Younger Employees

If you are trying to move ahead of your competition, try shifting into reverse with your mentoring.
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Mentoring is an effective way to pass on experience and knowledge within an organization. Companies in all industries have formal and informal programs designed to hone their talent and sharpen their competitive edge. However, the technology revolution has created an ironic twist to traditional mentoring. Today, it's common for a young, entry-level worker to have  a better understanding of technology or some aspect of the operation than his manager. Hmmm?

As a result, many organizations are shifting into reverse. They're asking front line, shop floor, or young tech-savvy employees to teach the "old dogs" (that would be me!) new tricks. This approach is typically employed when senior leaders need to better understand operations, customer preferences or new technologies.

Remember what Picasso said, "It takes a very long time to become young." So, even if you don't have a formal program, try hanging out with your younger team members, even those  who might be younger than your own children--a guaranteed eye-opener. You might discover that you are so far out of the loop you can't even see the loop.

Create  your own form of reverse mentoring. It could be as simple as asking your children  for feedback on your product/service/idea. Be ready for brutal honesty. If you don't have children accessible, then borrow your friend's. In either case, the children will feel valued and you will get valuable feedback.

Also, the next time you hire an intern, make a concerted effort to listen to and learn from them. Yep, learning can be a two-way street even with interns. No doubt, younger,    fresher eyes will see things differently than we will. Their insights might even be shocking, and if we can keep our egos in check, they could lead to powerful breakthroughs.

The music industry is on the leading edge of showing how reverse mentoring and young/old collaborations can not only work but JAM!  A past Grammy Awards show was a stellar example.    Robert Plant (from Led Zeppelin) and Alison Krauss lead the evening with five awards. We also saw cross-generational performances by Stevie Wonder and The Jonas Brothers, Al Green and Justin Timberlake and Sir Paul McCartney and drummer, Dave Grohl.

Before you jump in feet first (or head first in this case), consider these success factors to reverse mentoring as well as traditional mentoring relationships:

  1. Create and maintain an attitude of openness to the experience.
  2. Dissolve the barriers of status, power and position.
  3. Commit the necessary time.
  4. Have a game plan and goal.
  5. Define rules of engagement.
  6. Actively listen.
  7. Be patient.

If you are trying to move ahead of your competition, try shifting into reverse with your mentoring.

For more practical tips to elevate your leadership, subscribe to the author's FREE newsletter.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jun 11, 2014

LEE COLAN | Columnist

Lee Colan is founder of the L Group, a consulting firm that equips and inspires leaders at every level. He is a leadership adviser, presenter of practical ideas, and a Thinkers 50 nominee for Top Management Thinker.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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