Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks? Reverse Mentoring in Action.

Anika Stokes 25.08.2015

It was not so long ago when I recall talking light-heartedly with peers and clients about Gen Z, citing what a different species they were. What with their unrealistic expectations of entitlement, their need for constant change, leading to them moving roles more frequently than was deemed acceptable in “our” day, their need to change the world and their tweeting, YOLO’ing, cray cray ways.

Then came the discussions about how to manage this new species in our teams, and how to communicate effectively with them, #stillcanttweet. Then, all of a sudden we were going all out looking at ways of attracting them! Some of them actually had some interesting and disruptive ideas that made a lot of sense, some also have a strong work ethic and some can even influence the more mature, decision making generation. But now, now we are hearing that not only are the top dogs in some of our most prestigious companies fighting tooth and nail to attract this talent, they are asking them to mentor them…. Yes, you heard right. John Lydon, MD of McKinsey Austalian & NZ, David Gonski, Australia’s Chairman of Everything, and Michael Sherlock, the former Brumby's Bakeries' CEO turned franchising consultant and commercial property investment wiz are all being mentored by bright young things… And it’s working.

John Lydon, who recently spoke at our Women in Leadership Panel Presentation, boasted that not only had his tech capability increased ten-fold, but he was now able to get into the hearts and minds of the younger generation who have their finger on the pulse of emerging trends. He explained that McKinsey pair up entry level grads with a senior executive for a reverse mentoring relationship after the grads have been with the business for approximately 6 months so they can get their heads around the new media and digital landscape. 

Reverse mentoring was popularized by GE chairman Jack Welsh. The benefits of this arrangement are that not only are you bringing the generation gaps closer together, but the older of the two parties learns how to keep up with the changing world of digital, online and social media and the younger employee learns about business, has more visibility at the top end and gets up to speed a lot quicker than they may do normally. It’s certainly helping with the “them vs us” culture that was starting to form a few years ago.  Knowledge sharing is apparent now in most big organizations and it is great to see businesses such as the ANZ formally introducing a reverse mentoring program into their business, allowing the younger tech-savvy employees to transfer their IT and social media know-how to the senior exec’s who have never even seen a Facebook page

My top tips for creating a successful reverse mentoring relationship

Identify suitable candidates to partner with. You need to have a good connection with the partner you choose, don’t just choose someone because they are young. Make sure they are tech savvy and wise for their age. Sometimes it is beneficial to work with someone in a different sector or type of business to really open your eyes to new ways of doing things. You will learn more from them if you like them and often these relationships lead to long term friendships.

Set clear objectives and goals from the outset. Define what skills you want to learn and what you want to get out of the relationship.  Be clear about how much time you will need to spend together and lock these meetings into your diaries. This way you can monitor your progress and know that it has worked and was worthwhile.

Learn to communicate in a way that’s best for you both. Communicating with someone from a different generation can have it’s challenges. You may like to use the phone, they prefer text or email, or even FB Messenger… Be patient with each other and try to work out a way that works for you both. It is easy to get frustrated when trying to teach someone new skills, or learn new skills for that matter, what seems easy to you may be alien to them. Be considerate and agree that constructive feedback should be given after each session.

Anika Stokes's picture
Director | Strategy & Innovation