Embracing Reverse Mentorship

Most organizations have some type of mentorship program in place. When older workers with more experience, more wisdom and often a better sense of humor about the ups and downs of business pair up with younger employees, there is a lotdownload to be gained. But what about the reverse? Can young workers mentor their elders too? Can a Millennial also support Gen X or Boomer generation employee?

The answer is apparently yes—indeed, today, a growing number of companies from Cisco Systems to Target to United Health are embracing what is widely known as “reverse mentorship.” In most cases, the programs are focused largely on tech skills. Young people grew up with social media—they know how it works and how it can be used to find and secure “influencers” among one’s customer base—and can pass along their insider knowledge to older workers. But this isn’t the only reason more and more companies are embracing reverse mentorship programs.

The Limits of the “Middle Age Mind”

snapTechnology is precisely why established New York Times reporter Phyllis Korkki turned to her officemate Talya Minsberg, 27, for help. As Korkki explains, “[Tayla] moved into a cubicle just a few rows from mine. Her job title alone — social strategy editor — is a clear sign of our changing world.” But Korkii is clear about the upshot of working with Minsberg:

My experience with Talya taught me far more than the basics of a new form of video storytelling (which was already asking a lot). Along the way I learned important lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of the middle-aged brain, and how learning new things can keep it in top working order. It also made me realize that organizations and individual workers could do a lot more to bridge the gaps between generations.

Reverse Mentorship and the Changing Mindset

While reverse mentorship is currently on the rise, it is important to note that the concept has been around for many years. Over a decade ago, the American Library Association (ALA) carried out a study on mentorship. The report concluded that they ALA needed a new approach: reverse mentor. As reported by the ALA: “This suggestion came from a long-time librarian who noted that, ‘I think in our profession it is just as important to have the veteran get help from the novice.’”

oldThe ALA program recognized the fact that new librarians were arriving on the job with a set of highly desirable tech skills as well as a sensibility that could help transform the profession. In many respects, the ALA’s intuition was right. While a lot of librarian were worried about their job security in the early 2000s as people wondered if books and libraries would survive, younger librarians were bringing their tech skills and open-minded perspective about books and libraries into the workplace. In short, while many older libraries felt under attack, younger librarians asserted that books and computers could coexist. In 2016, most libraries look very different than they did a decade ago (yes, in some cases, there are fewer books on shelves), but in most cities, public library memberships have gone up rather than down over the past decade. In New York City, many public libraries now offer a range of services from computer labs to recording studios to “makerspaces” of all kinds and many of these new programs, which exist side by side with shelves of books, have waiting lists that are months long.

What one can learn from the ALA’s experience is essential. Yes, one’s younger colleagues might have tech skills that they can share with older workers, but they may also be vital to solving problems. In the ALA’s case, younger librarians also brought a new perspective to bear on a problem that felt insurmountable to many in the profession at the time. In the case of libraries, younger librarians, who typically still love books and print culture, helped to navigate libraries’ transition into the digital era.

If being able to adopt a change mindset is critical, reverse mentorship may be just want contemporary organizations need to survive.

September 11, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016   mentoring, mentorship, reverse mentorship   

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