File this one under silly management trends: reverse mentoring.
I’m a big fan of mentoring (and really, the development of workplace relationships in general). Professional relationships between co-workers, managers and subordinates is a sign of a healthy workplace. Having a formal mentoring program is great too, especially for highly talented (but not yet developed) employees you wish to retain.
But this idea of reverse mentoring, when younger workers mentor older workers on the use of social media, the Internet and workplace trends, has some fatal flaws and broken assumptions built into it. And if you decide to implement such a program yourself, you should think twice before you start.
The young people love it they say
Of course, none other than The Wall Street Journal covered this growing trend in a recent piece:
Workplace mentors used to be older and higher up the ranks than their mentees. Not anymore.
In an effort to school senior executives in technology, social media and the latest workplace trends, many businesses are pairing upper management with younger employees in a practice known as reverse mentoring. The trend is taking off at a range of companies, from tech to advertising.
The idea is that managers can learn a thing or two about life outside the corner office. But companies say another outcome is reduced turnover among younger employees, who not only gain a sense of purpose but also a rare glimpse into the world of management and access to top-level brass.”
While younger workers may feel more involved and helpful in this reverse mentoring relationship, there are a couple of things that are severely wrong with it.
Mentoring should already be this way
Having been involved in putting together both formal and informal mentoring relationships, I can tell you one thing: it isn’t supposed to be a mentor sitting on one end of the table talking while the mentee takes furious notes unquestioningly. There’s supposed to be a shared dialog, shared learning, and the goal of bettering both participants in the long haul.
Thinking back to the way mentor relationships have evolved for me, I know that while my mentors have helped me out much more than I ever could do in return, I have certainly helped them out in smaller ways. At the very least, they may have been exposed to a view that may not get in their normal circle of colleagues.
The idea of reverse mentoring is based on an assumption that regular mentoring is a one way exchange of information so it must be reversed in order to get information flowing the opposite way. Instead of doing that, how about making your mentoring program better and focused more on raising the bar for both participants? That would be a good start.
Gen Y isn’t always tech savvy
If anyone knows about getting co-opted to provide technical support for the more experienced generations, it’s me. While I may have some technical expertise on certain matters, it certainly isn’t comprehensive. And when I look over the span of my peers within a few years of my age, I see a wide diversity of knowledge when it comes to technology and social media.
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Some Millennials know more than me, others know less (sometimes, much, much less). And while Gen Y’s tech knowledge may be better on average than other generations, you still don’t know if automatically pairing a young worker with an older worker is going to result in a decent experience or instead become the blind leading the blind.
Let’s also not forget that application matters. Someone may know all about using Facebook or Twitter for personal use, but they could still be just as lost as an older worker when asked to set up a Facebook page for the company that will actually be worth your time, or a Twitter account that proves valuable.
If you have an expert in your midst that can help teach your executive team about using technology and social media, by all means, use them. But don’t be surprised if it’s someone a little closer to middle age than college.
Finding meaning in reverse mentoring
That last excuse for using reverse mentoring is that it gives younger workers a sense of purpose and helps with retention.
I can tell you one thing: if reverse mentoring is your strategy for keeping younger workers on task and retained in their meaningless jobs, it is going to fail miserably.
Gimmicky programs like this (or free soft drinks, video games, and the like) only go so far in retaining people, young or old. The most powerful message you can send are the simple ones you can do everyday: what you do at work is worth something, it is appreciated and you’ll be treated with respect.
That might not be a great story, but it is a great practice.