"It produced...an inversion of expertise because we had so many changes at the lower levels in technology and tactics and whatnot that suddenly the things we grew up doing weren't what the force was doing anymore. So how does a leader stay credible and legitimate when you haven't done what the people you're leading are doing? It's a brand-new leadership challenge, and it forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, and a lot more willing to be reversed-mentored."
Retired four-star general, Stanley McChrystal, made this bold statement in his "Learn, listen...then lead" TED talk. The rise of Millennials and their new tactics and use of technology forced McChrystal into adopting a new perspective of mentorship, more specifically reverse mentoring.
Reverse mentoring has become a powerful strategy for leaders and organizations to engage a multi-generational team and retain Millennials.
Millennials place a premium on mentorship. Millennials intending to stay with their organization for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68 percent) than not (32 percent). And over 90 percent of Millennials with mentors describe the quality of advice and the level of interest shown in their development as "good." Having a culture of mentorship will promote Millennial loyalty and reverse mentoring will engage Millennial talent.
What is reverse mentoring?
Reverse mentoring is a learning relationship where the mentor is younger than the mentee. Senior executives or veteran employees are paired with younger employees who then share their insights and perspective on various topics such as technology, social media, leadership, workplace trends, and more.
Unlike traditional mentoring, in which the mentor is always a senior individual who can pass on experience without much risk of pushback from the mentee, reverse mentoring provides an environment where information and insights can freely flow and where the organizational hierarchy is flattened.
Each generation brings with them strengths shaped by their unique circumstances. Today's younger generations carry a very unique and high-demand skill set and knowledge that has not been possessed by previous generations at that age. In fact, 68 percent of hiring managers agree that Millennials have skills that previous generations don't have.
Millennials are familiar and comfortable with reverse mentoring because they grew up doing it. Millennials were the "Household CTO" where they helped mom and dad troubleshoot computers, set-up Facebook, and embrace texting.
Benefits of Reverse Mentoring
A diverse workforce is required to stimulate innovation, cultivate creativity, and steer business strategies. Reverse mentoring empowers a diverse range of employees to share their opinions, ideas, knowledge, and experiences on a level playing field. Reverse mentoring creates an environment of trust, belonging, understanding, support, and encouragement.
The benefits or reverse mentoring include increased Millennial retention, knowledge transfer, diversity inclusion, expanded perspectives, diminished stereotypes, and more cohesive communication across the organization.
When leaders decide to engage in reverse mentoring, they have a golden opportunity to model the communication skills that many Millennials desperately need and provide the leadership development they want. (According to the audiences that I have taught this strategy to, this is perhaps the most important benefit of reverse mentoring.) Leaders can display first hand the power of a firm handshake, the benefits of strong eye contact, appropriate body language, how to craft inquisitive questions, the importance of continuous learning, and much more.
Reverse mentoring is a win-win. It creates opportunities for Millennials to improve their communication skills and develop professionally while leaders get the added benefit of learning from the next generation.
Who Uses Reverse Mentoring?
Jack Welch, while CEO at GE, was credited for being one of the first adopters of reverse mentoring. Welch selected a junior employee to mentor him and then encouraged 500 other organizational leaders to find a reverse mentor. Since then other companies including HP, The Hartford, Power Home Remodeling (a Fortune top 10 of the 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials), PayPal, Cisco, and Coca-Cola have initiated reverse mentoring programs.
According to Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen, authors of The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business, mentoring is used in 56 percent of a 600 company sample polled by Delphi Group. Yet of those 600 companies only 14 percent had a reverse mentoring program in place, even though 51 percent of those companies have cross-generational teams.
Reverse mentoring is underutilized and isn't widely used because leaders are...
- unaware of the benefits.
- already engaged in peer-to-peer mentoring.
- pressured to focus on tasks with clear ROI.
- lacking time.
- too prideful.
Yet, reverse mentoring is becoming increasingly important to consider as more and more Millennials and Generation Z pour into the workplace.
Here are some examples of organizations using reverse mentoring.
- Burberry: Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of the English fashion company, Burberry, saw an opportunity to leverage the unique and modern approach Millennials take to problem-solving. She created a "Strategic Innovation Council" where Millennials came together once a month to "innovate Burberry's future" by collaborating with Burberry's leadership.
- Babson College: The private business school in Wellesley, Massachusetts held a five-week series of seminars that were developed and taught by students instead of faculty. The college was interested in offering courses that were more relevant to the real world because faculty didn't have expertise in topics ranging from app development to the food truck industry. The college stresses the importance of achieving "cognitively ambidextrous" or "effortlessly bilingual" and with over 90 percent of Babson graduates finding a job six months after graduation, it seems to be working.
- Warby Parker: During the early stages of the prescription eyeglass and sunglass company, Warby Parker was going to move aggressively into brick and mortar until younger employees suggested going digital first and selling the product online. Reverse mentoring was a key component for Fast Company naming Warby Parker the Most Innovative Company of 2015.
- National Football League: When Jim Tomsula was the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he held weekly meetings with players to learn about "new apps and technology," which he used to create digital reminders for the team. Tomsula also shortened the two-hour team meetings to 30 minutes and injected more visuals and interactivity based on his reverse mentoring learnings.
- Target: The second-largest discount retailer in the U.S. recently partnered with Techstars--a group that teams up tech startups with large corporations--to teach their leaders how startup employees (many of which are Millennials) work in a fast-paced environment and "scrappily to get things done." This practice has also helped diminish the negative stereotypes that can plague Millennial employees within their companies.
- Slovenia: The small European country of Slovenia is using reverse mentoring to combat ageism. The "Simbioza" project was created with the goal to improve e-literacy in seniors by young people volunteering to teach computer skills. The project put technology into the hands of older adults but also instilled social responsibility into Millennials thereby giving hope to both age cohorts. The project has been a success in bridging the countries' generation gaps.
How to Begin Reverse Mentoring?
- Make a list of five things you don't know but need to know.
- Identify one or two items from the list that you are most likely not to learn on your own or during your course of work.
- Identify a junior colleague that has the expertise you need.
- Ask the junior colleague to mentor you.
- Clarify where to meet, frequency, expectations, etc. and set a defined end point.
- Prepare by identifying a set of questions before the first meeting. (Don't be afraid to ask naive questions.)
- Meet and learn.
In today's ever-changing business world, it's important for leaders to stay grounded in what's next for their teams, industry, and workplace. Reverse mentoring offers the chance to disrupt and expand one's perspective as well as retain Millennials and provide them a heightened sense of engagement and ownership.
Everybody has something to learn from somebody. Mentorship will never be the same and nor will your organization...should you choose to reverse mentor.