What is reverse mentoring?

Sometimes we’re so busy looking at those who have gone before us that we forget about those leading from behind. Rosie Ifould looks at the case for ‘reverse mentoring’


What is reverse mentoring?

One Wednesday night recently, about 10pm, I was at home waiting for a phonecall that might change my career. Despite the hour, it was not with the head of some international corporation, or a high-flying CEO who works a 20-hour day. My phone date for the evening was with 23-year-old Lucy. She had had a hectic few weeks in her job at the BBC, but we’d finally found a time that suited us both for my first session of ‘reverse mentoring’.

A few months ago, I’d been feeling a bit stuck in a rut with work. There wasn’t anything dramatic about it; I felt I needed to shake things up and get a fresh sense of perspective on what I was doing. I’d been thinking about whether I should look for a mentor to offer guidance when I came across an article on a business website about ‘reverse mentoring’ – a term that was first used in the late 1990s, and has taken a while to become established.

Fresh thinking

The idea is that older workers (usually in their forties or fifties) can benefit from having a younger mentor (usually in their twenties). This kind of working relationship can have surprisingly powerful benefits, says Emma Cerrone of digital training company Freeformers: ‘It can give you a fresh way of thinking.’

Freeformers is built around the concept of young people offering training and advice to older workers, typically in senior roles. ‘After a short while with their younger mentors, a lot of senior people really start to appreciate the way they approach problem-solving. There’s a focus on what’s possible instead of what’s not possible –  and that’s invigorating.’

In most cases, it seems that the main areas reverse mentoring relationships focus on are technology and social media but, in some instances, it can also be about the older mentee adopting something of their younger mentor’s attitude and approach.

Penny Power, founder of the Digital Youth Academy and ambassador for the Department for Business’s Get Mentoring campaign, discovered this when she employed her daughter. ‘She had just graduated and I had project management work that needed doing. She’s always been headstrong and I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to round off her sharp edges! What actually happened was I ended up learning from her.’

Learning from each other

Power started watching how her daughter behaved in meetings, and listening to her advice about being more assertive. ‘I asked her to tell me where she thought I was going wrong.’ She recalls being at home one day making two tricky work calls while her daughter was upstairs, listening in. When she’d finished, her daughter came downstairs and said ‘Mum, well done, that was fantastic!’ It was, she adds, an incredibly proud moment.

Things may have been different if it was Power’s secretary rather than a relative making this point, but Power’s own attitude was crucial.

‘Part of the learning process is about admitting you need help,’ she says. The Digital Youth Academy connects young people from the digitally native generation with more traditional firms. One of the key factors in determining their success is whether their line manager has the confidence to let them find their own way.

When I begin looking for a reverse mentor, I realise how vulnerable it makes me feel. I hate admitting I need help, let alone from someone younger (I suspect this has a lot to do with being used to excelling at my usual role as bossy older sister). Ironically, asking for help is something many people in the younger generation excel at, says Power. ‘They have a “network” mindset as opposed to an institutional one. They are more comfortable being open and supportive rather than closed, selective or controlling.’

You can do a test online to get an indication of your mindset at the LeadORS website (leadors.co). As my intuition and my test confirm, I’m more in the latter camp, and because I usually work at home, alone, rather than as part of a big organisation, it takes me a while to find a mentor.

Lucy Mills is the niece of my father’s partner; somebody I have met once, briefly, but having heard about her work, she sounds like the kind of person I’d like to be – someone who’s happy networking and comfortable promoting herself via social media. When I mention this to Lucy during our first Skype chat, she’s very happy to talk about how she makes contacts.

She spends at least two hours a day on social media, she says. I probably also spend two hours a day flicking through Facebook and Twitter but the difference is I’m more of a ‘lurker’, I think. Lucy’s Twitter feed is full of information that links to her professional life and makes her seem far more in-the-loop than mine does.

Interestingly, though, she confesses she already feels out of touch when she looks at how teenagers use social media. ‘It’s simple things like uploading instantly. I’m not doing it, but 14- and 15-year-olds, even younger, can all create amazing videos with their phones.’

Key differences

By the end of our conversation, I’m feeling really old. But it’s fascinating, just asking Lucy questions about her attitude to work and spotting the differences in how we think. I soon realise it won’t be all that helpful to me to use ‘what would Lucy do?’ as a mantra, because there are some key differences in how we live our lives.

Tellingly, when I ask her about how well women in their thirties and beyond are represented where she works, she tells me that she’s had some challenging conversations with older colleagues about having to make compromises between work and family. This is one area where the benefits of having an older mentor, who’s had that experience of juggling childcare and career, is obvious.

But reverse mentoring isn’t meant to be a direct substitute for more traditional mentoring. Just being able to see how she does things makes me think about whether I can make changes to my own attitude. There’s an openness and determination about Lucy that’s admirable, and makes me question my own tendency towards cynicism.

It’s a useful first session, but I soon realise I’ve not been specific enough in outlining areas where I’d really like Lucy’s input. As Emma Cerrone says, ‘it’s not enough to throw two people in a room together and expect a good outcome’. I email Lucy the next day, asking for her advice on what I could do to make better use of my social media.

She emails back with a mini-review of my online presence (‘minimalistic, but with purpose’). She says some nice things about my website, which is gratifying. I’ve adopted her habit of using Twitter to share examples of my work and of things related to work, and it feels more purposeful.

Getting Lucy’s perspective is really helpful but, in a way, what’s been most useful is the simple act of asking for help. Admitting that I’d like feedback, and having to think about how someone else would look at the way I work, made me start to think differently.

A two-way exchange

There’s one final important component of the reverse mentoring relationship that I need to consider. What can I offer Lucy? A successful relationship should be two-way, says Cerrone. ‘For a lot of our trainers, it’s about getting the opportunity to see how business works.’

It’s also a fantastic exercise in confidence-boosting. As Lucy says, ‘Suddenly your experiences matter. You’re able to put some of the lessons you’ve learned into context to help someone more senior to you. By being a younger mentor, you’re able to value what you know, and you get the chance to self-reflect and spot gaps in your knowledge.’

Lewie Allen, 27, is Freeformers’ lead trainer and spends his days mentoring CEOs as well as teaching digital skills to young people. ‘I’ve mentored people in finance, retail, all sorts of different sectors, but they’re often very senior,’ he says. ‘Usually, my role is to help them see how the new digital landscape looks – it’s often about teaching big business how to think like a start-up.’

And what does Lewie get from it? ‘Well, my LinkedIn profile looks pretty healthy, for starters,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve made a lot of great connections. What’s great for me is that I see how big businesses work from the top down. If I were just to get a job at Barclays, I’d be at cashier level. Doing this, I’ve seen how things operate at boardroom level.’

Photograph: iStock

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