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Why Reciprocal Mentoring is a Smart Career Tactic

Four tips that will help you and a twentysomething learn from each other

By Beverly Jones | November 13, 2013
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Beverly Jones is a leadership and transitions coach who runs Clearways Consulting in Washington, D.C., and Rappahannock County, Va. She was formerly a lawyer representing energy clients, universities and nonprofits.

(This article previously appeared on Clearwaysconsulting.com.)

The classic concept of a mentor is a wise, generous senior advisor leading along someone younger and less experienced. But that image is so limited and so dated. 
 
Here’s what can make mentoring really hum: fostering relationships that are reciprocal. 
 
(MORE: Why You Need a Reverse Mentor)
 
My Husband and His Reciprocal
 
I was thinking about the nature of mentoring during a recent long weekend as I dropped in and out of a three-day conversation between my boomer husband and one of his much younger professional pals.  
 
My husband, Andy Alexander, has run an international news operation, won prizes and served as The Washington Post’s ombudsman. Once a classic newspaper guy, these days his work includes teaching and fostering media innovation at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication. 
 
Andy’s mid-20s friend, Ryan Lytle, has racked up an impressive resumé as a multi-media expert in just a few years. An outstanding 2010 Scripps College graduate, today he’s a rising star at Mashable.com, a leading source for news about social media.
 
What fascinated me about the interaction between the two men was the way each listened intently and seemed to be learning from the other.
 
(MORE: Why You Should Mentor — And How to Do It)
 
What Each Learns From the Other
 
When I asked Ryan about this, he said that one thing he learns from journalism veterans who grew up in a very different news business is how to build organizations and grow leadership. 
 
“Everything I do professionally is about the future of journalism," Andy said, "and part of being engaged is staying in touch with the people who are creating that future. I've learned a lot from Ryan about how the social media business is evolving: what's new, what's hot, who's trying something truly innovative, who are the up-and-coming social media leaders, who's experimenting with new ways to monetize social media and how they’re doing it.”
 
Andy believes he may have helped Ryan contextualize the way he wants his career to play out.

“He's so talented that lots of social media companies want to hire him. He always seems to have job options,” said Andy. “But a key is knowing what kind of employer will provide you with the challenges and opportunities that make you want to grow with the company.”
 
(MORE: How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers)

Interestingly, neither Andy nor Ryan actually used the term “mentor” in describing their relationship. But they both enjoy and benefit from their conversations, despite their age differences and career situations.
 
To me, their dialogue illustrates the benefits of an emerging concept: reciprocal mentoring, where each partner is both teacher and student. 
 
How AARP is Into Reciprocal Mentoring
 
Matching up teens with adults aged 50+ is central to “Mentor Up,” a new partnership between AARP and the National 4-H Council. Mentor Up’s initial programs will include reverse mentoring activities where teens help boomers develop IT literacy.
 
“When we look at the older and younger generations, we see opportunities for the two generations to reach out, learn from each other and discover new ways to connect and improve their respective life chances,” AARP Executive VP Jo An Jenkins recently wrote in The Huffington Post.
 
Traditional Mentoring Should Be Reciprocal
 
Actually, I think even traditional mentoring works both ways when it’s truly successful.
 
At first glance, it may seem as though the mentee benefits the most, getting advice and sometimes even the support of an informed advocate at critical moments. But when the relationship clicks, the mentor gains just as much. 
 
Initially, the joy of mentoring can stroke your ego; it’s nice to have someone listen to you and follow your advice. As the relationship grows, however, the mentee’s questions and feedback can give the mentor a chance to pause and gain a new perspective.
 
Eventually, the conversation becomes truly two-way, with both partners seeking advice, sharing insights and exploring delicate career questions in an environment of trust.
 
How to Become a Reciprocal Mentor
 
But as Andy and Ryan illustrate, there’s no need to wait for mentoring relationships to mature over the years into bilateral dialogues. Why not seek work relationships that are dedicated to reciprocal mentoring from the very beginning?
 
Initiating a reciprocal mentoring partnership is easiest when both people have strengths and expertise, but in different areas. Perhaps a boomer with leadership experience but meager social media skills might partner up with a Millennial who’s a social media and tech whiz but doesn’t know how to manage people.
 
If you want to embark on a reciprocal mentoring relationship, here are four things to keep in mind:
 
1. The match is key. Not every reciprocal mentoring partnership is successful and it can take a few tries to find one that works. Both parties should feel they have something to gain — and mentoring works best when both people enjoy each other’s company.
 
You’re more likely to spot a good fit if you have broad social and professional circles. So pump up your networking and find groups and activities that let you meet new people. You might start by working with your college alumni group.
 
2. Both sides should stay open-minded. Sometimes protégés chill their mentoring relationships by taking offense at the very advice they sought. Partners who ask for guidance or feedback should agree to listen carefully and put aside defensive reactions.
 
It’s a good idea to set some ground rules at the start of a reciprocal mentoring arrangement. Work out sensitive matters such as confidentiality, the need to maintain a positive tone and a promise to avoid time wastes, like whining.
 
3. Identify specific requests. It’s not enough for partners to begin with a vague sense that they’d like some career help. Each partner should enter the process with clear ideas about particular issues to explore and forms of assistance that would be welcome.
 
Later, when the relationship is successfully launched, it might grow in surprising directions.
 
4. Consider logistics. It’s great if you can find a younger person in your neighborhood and the two of you can meet regularly over coffee or lunch to help each other. But you might instead want to work with someone who lives across the country.
 
In that case, explore options such as Skype, social media chats or phone calls and set a schedule that’s comfortable and convenient for both of you. That way, the reciprocal arrangement will truly be reciprocal.
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