Reverse Mentoring: It’s a Gimmick That Doesn’t Work, and Here’s Why

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.”

I feel like I’m channeling the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney when I lead the charge on discrediting parts of this Generation Y fantasy piece, but I feel I must.

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.

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9 Comments on “Reverse Mentoring: It’s a Gimmick That Doesn’t Work, and Here’s Why

  1. Hey Lance!  Great thought provoking article.  Okay, reverse mentoring may not work for everyone and yes, it should be happening anyway.  BUT….there are many executives that can learn a thing or two about social media and the younger generations can provide some of this information.  It IS a great way to build relationships within the organization and a great way for the younger workers to share some of their tech savy knowledge.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I honestly think my biggest problem with it is we still go back to the age factor. An older person can know little about the business world and a young person can know nothing about technology and social media. I believe mentoring is huge but it needs to be done based on need, end-goals and expertise.

  2. Lance, I agree with Anne-margaret. It’s a thought provoking article, and I hope you get lots of response.  Mentorship is a dialogue and requires skills on both sides to be effective.  Fostering diads, triads, etc. as discussed in Tribal Leadership by David Logan provides a basis for creating these dialogues.  Age has less to do with it, but curiosity, and a genuine desire to learn and teach, make the dialogue succeed.

  3. Agree w/ your points on this topic Lance. The main “issue” I have w/ the premise is the stale generational stereotype about younger people automatically being more tech savvy. Many of us from X or prior generations have been using technology OTJ for decades now. Even SM tools have been around long enough to be mainstream across all demographics.

    1. I dislike it too, because I know too many young people who have no clue. And I’ve had older folks who I would never mentor with because they didn’t know much, either.

  4. Your post raises some interesting points for consideration, namely what mentoring actually means. Is it the same as teaching? In my opinion, no. New workers can teach experienced people certain skills, but mentoring is more than that, it’s about guiding and nuturing someone so they can get the best out of themselves. More importantly. a successful workplace mentoring relationship needs both parties to get something out of it; the mentor should help the mentoree become the best they can be at their career, while the mentoree helps the mentor gain leadership skills, become more confident, and even learn something new about their job.

    HR recruiter Gill Bell provides the followoing advice on mentoring: “When seeking a mentor, you should look for someone at a more senior level to you. This will ensure that they have a sound understanding of the career issues you face and will therefore be able to guide you through any potential difficulties.”

    The full article is here: http://www.changeboard.com/content/3999/

  5. Lance Haun
    seems to have little understanding on Reverse Mentoring and Here’s Why.

    The first
    thing is if you use any tool  in an
    inappropriate way and don’t get desired results of course it’s easy to blame
    the tool and not your selves. To start a mentoring program or reverse mentoring
    program starts with the WHY and not the WHAT. The business issue you want to
    solve or the ambition you want to realize should be the starting point and from
    that the check if mentoring or reverse mentoring can help – is the right tool –
    to reach your goals.

    The idea of
    ‘Mentoring should already  be this way’
    is a strange general approach. I think what should be is that for all
    participants it should be crystal clear what the purpose of any initiative is.
    For ‘regular’ mentoring as for reverse mentoring as for two-way mentoring. When
    all participants – mentors and mentees –  benefit from it is nice but the primary goal
    and target group should be clear in relation to business issues and desired
    results.

    ‘Gen Y isn’t
    always tech savvy ‘ is even more strange to use as an argument that reverse
    mentoring doesn’t work. It’s the kind of logic like ‘every raccoon has a tail
    but not every tail has a raccoon!’ true but so what? In any (reverse)  mentoring program selection and matching of
    mentors and mentees should be done carefully and content knowledge and mentoring
    skills should be considered or trained in relationship to the business issues
    and desired results.

    Then the
    excuse that reverse mentoring could be a strategy for retention of young
    employees. It would indeed be a false strategy, an inappropriate way to use a
    tool as mentioned before. But again that’s not a reason to mention reverse
    mentoring as being a silly management trend: it’s the people that use it that
    way who are silly. If you build a professional reverse mentoring program focused
    on senior managers as mentees and on relevant business issues you get the
    positive results for the junior employees as mentor as extra for free!

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Unfortunately, I am unconvinced. Mentor programs are not free. That’s really a fundamental misunderstanding of the real costs that go into a serious, effective mentoring program. Developing an effective mentoring relationship (which, to be a relationship, must be two-way) takes hours of time from the people involved over a prolonged period of time. That time has a real cost associated with it, hundreds of dollars an hour if you’re talking about a top executive. Spread that out over many employees and you have thousands of dollars invested (a good investment too, if done correctly). 

      For skills like social media and technology (which aren’t particularly unique to organizations), it would actually be much less expensive to bring in a professional trainer or even to just simply pick the most qualified person at the company. Doing it under the guise of a mentoring program seems like an odd and particularly wasteful choice. Mentoring programs being asked to substitute for basic organizational training is a good way of seeing a total failure. There’s value in mentorships, but it isn’t from the exchange of transactional knowledge.

  6. As a consultant in mentoring over the last 22 years, I heartily agree with this article.  Reverse mentoring is not mentoring.  It’s knowledge sharing which is more akin to coaching than mentoring.  Whoever came up with the term reverse mentoring was probably a consultant trying to make a buck with a gimmicky approach.

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