Reverse mentoring

Written by Nick Gold on 5 October 2018

The term ‘digital native’ is a fascinating insight into the ever-expanding schism in the workplace, between those who have never known a world without technology (Digital Natives) and those for whom technology is a learnt skill. 

It could be argued that we spend an increasing amount of time immersed in technology. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell the author talks about 10,000 hours of 'deliberate practice' which are needed to become world-class in any field. This is justification that we all can consider ourselves digital natives. 

But we would be kidding ourselves. The digital world that exists today with its relentless and evolving landscape is what the digital native has only ever known. The digital native is at home in this natural habitat while the rest of us adjust to a new climate.  

Therefore, the traditional hierarchical management structures of companies are being shaken up with an understanding that the culture within a company is a significant component driving both the success of the business internally and the development of the brand to its clients. 

It can no longer be categorically stated that experience overrides everything. The digital landscape dictates that experience will count for nothing if tomorrow’s landscape (or even today’s) looks nothing like we’ve ever seen before.

This is why I’m a passionate advocate that reverse mentoring is critical to the success of any company. It could be argued that tentative steps have been made into this over the last 20 years, with the concept of ‘managing up’ to achieve your goals within an organisation, but this is taking it a stage further. 

The digital landscape dictates that experience will count for nothing if tomorrow’s landscape (or even today’s) looks nothing like we’ve ever seen before.

There is an acceptance by senior leaders that, however much they can adapt, they could do with some assistance. 

Whether this is from a purely digital perspective as discussed above, or from a perspective where the company is employing several generations who have different drivers, motivations, outlooks and ethos which need to be embraced as a cohesive workforce and fulfil the individual’s potential.

I fully accept this is not something that sits easily for someone who has spent years working their way up in a company or in a sector to be told that their experience is not ‘worth’ what it used to be. 

On top of this, it relies on the senior person to understand they need to demonstrate vulnerability and ignorance which they will need to learn from people who are both younger and less experienced than them. 

This symbiotic relationship of accepting areas they are lacking in alongside that these areas come naturally to the digital native will help that senior person to a position of greater strength than for the person who is closed off to this concept.

Reverse mentoring, coupled with the more traditional and established mentoring by a senior experienced person to their more junior and inexperienced colleague, is that of a mutual benefit. By the relationship being a two-way conversation or learning platform, it helps both parties develop and improve themselves in areas they might require assistance in to both understand and learn. 

It could be said that there is no down side to this mutual improvement besides the concept of pride in accepting help from others.

It could also be argued this is the key issue as it uproots the traditional structures of responsibility and control but I would reply that these traditional structures are already under attack. How can a leader expect to lead and demonstrate strategic direction when they are struggling with the dizzying rate of change around them? 

How can a leader demonstrate inclusivity and collection responsibility if they are not prepared to allow themselves to learn, embracing ideas and challenges from those around them?

Reverse mentoring is a win-win from all perspectives, it is a journey for both people in the relationship to enhance them, to embrace the world around them and to gain insight into different perspectives from opposite ends of the employment lifecycle. 

It doesn’t require any more input or work than is already taking place (assuming a mentoring scheme already exists) – just a shift from a one-day dynamic to a cross fertilisation of ideas, opinions and thoughts and willingness from both parties to actively listen and engage with each other, embracing the differences and suggestions and then incorporating these into working practices and ideas that suit their personality and position.


About the author

Nick Gold is managing director of market-leading speaker bureau and consultancy, Speakers Corner



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