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Why You Need a 'Reverse Mentor' at Work

That 20-something in the next cubicle can make you more valuable to your boss

posted by Paul Bernard, August 13, 2012 More by this author

Younger and older businesspeople working together on computer

Paul Bernard is the founder and principal of Paul Bernard & Associates, an executive coaching and career management consulting firm based in New York City.


Younger and older businesspeople working together on computer
Comstock Images | Comstock | Thinkstock
You know, of course, how useful mentoring can be to a young employee. Maybe you’ve even been a mentor yourself. But what you might not know is that these days, a colleague who is much younger than you can do a lot to help you get ahead at work and in your career.

This kind of supporter is called a “reverse mentor.” It's an employee in his or her 20s or 30s who teaches an older employee how to: stay on top of workplace technology, master social media, know what younger people are thinking and doing, and keep job skills up to date. If you feel tentative about using Twiiter, LinkedIn and Facebook in your job, for instance, a reverse mentor can probably show you the ropes.

As an executive coach with more than 20 years experience advising managers who are 50-plus, I’ve seen first-hand how reverse mentoring acts as a powerful tool to make employees more essential to their bosses and stronger prospective job candidates.

Although reverse mentoring first found its way into the corporate vocabulary about 15 years ago, as The Wall Street Journal recently noted, the phenomenon has really taken off lately with the social media explosion. Companies such as Accenture, BP, GE, IBM, Procter & Gamble and Time Warner have formal reverse mentoring programs that help them expand brands and boost profits.

What a Reverse Mentor Can Do For You

Reverse mentoring can be beneficial for you in four ways:

1. You can get advice and information that you wouldn’t receive from your usual sources. A younger person can introduce you to hipper audiences, trendy thinkers and ideas you might not know about.

2. You can get caught up on technology faster. Broadening your sources of information to include online databases and social media applications lets you stay in the know. If you’ve maxed out your Facebook friends list at 30, a reverse mentor can show you how to significantly expand your contacts.

3. You can work together to come up with new ideas. Reverse mentoring makes you more creative, especially about ways to reach younger consumers or market a new product or service online inexpensively.

4. You can get energized and so can your reverse mentor. Engaging with a younger mentor enriches your daily experience on the job and increases the sense of a shared dialogue in the office (which is likely to please your reverse mentor and your boss).

How to Do It Right

Reverse mentoring isn’t a magic elixir to better pay or promotions. It’s easy to goof up in this type of unorthodox relationship. Follow these guidelines to make the most of a reverse-mentoring relationship:

Don’t let the tail wag the dog. Get as much tactical feedback as possible from your young adviser, but be wary about letting a reverse mentor dictate work strategies you should employ. Strategy usually involves longer-term thinking that requires more experience in the workplace. It’s an area where some gray hair can come in handy. Just ask anyone who worked at MySpace.

Keep things work appropriate. The under-30 crowd might be hip to tech trends, but they don’t always understand how to use social media in a business context.

Establish ground rules about privacy and confidentiality. If you don’t, your mentor might end up blurting out to the world some of your personal information, pictures or even trade secrets. And although that picture of you boogieing at the company holiday party may be funny, it might not be something you want potential clients or customers to see.

Be careful not to let your mentor persuade you to take on excessive risks. For instance, just because you can tweet provocatively doesn't mean you should. I know of a case where a reverse mentor encouraged a divisional CEO at an insurance company to tweet like larger-than-life Virgin chief executive Richard Branson because there were concerns that the firm and the divisional CEO weren't hip enough. Unfortunately, the exec didn't realize that tweeting like Branson isn't acceptable in a conservative, staid business like insurance. It’s great that your Gen Y buddy will help you become less stodgy on the job. But as we’ve learned, in this post-Lehman Brothers world, sometimes you need to just say no to the tech-savvy Young Turks.

How to Find a Reverse Mentor

If your firm or organization doesn’t already have a reverse mentoring program, request one. Give your boss or the human resources department examples of successful formal reverse mentoring programs.

If your company is small and can’t develop a formal reverse-mentoring program, ask your boss if you and a young employee could try doing it informally.

Or suggest doing a test run by creating internships for computer-savvy college students. If the internship idea gains traction, contact the guidance departments at local colleges for names of technologically inclined students that you or your boss could interview.

And if all else fails, do what Michel Le Galle does. A senior speechwriter and communications manager at a consulting firm, Le Galle is regularly tutored about buzzy computer trends by his technophile daughters, 19 and 23.

The Future for Reverse Mentoring

As employers look for ways to better manage their increasingly age-diverse workforce, reverse mentoring just might be the start of something big.

The practice could pave the way for a new standard of open dialogue in business stretching far beyond technology. Ideally, learning and information sharing would cross all lines of seniority and responsibility. Call it mutual mentoring.

After all, advancing yourself in today’s volatile economy is all about continuous learning. And what better way to learn than by creating a 360-degree dialogue with all generations?
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