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Taking advice from the young and wise

When you picture a mentorship, chances are you’re conjuring up mental images of an older mentor with a younger mentee. But that traditional model for exchanging knowledge has quickly given way for a different approach that puts the younger individual in the mentor role. 

It’s called reverse mentoring, and according to The Wall Street Journal, a growing number of businesses are coupling upper management with younger employees to school the older executives in areas such as technology and social media.

The argument for reverse mentoring is that managers can learn new skills from the younger workers, who in turn “not only gain a sense of purpose but also a rare glimpse into the world of management and access to top-level brass,” writes Leslie Kwoh. 

Reverse mentoring is nothing new; it dates back more than a decade. It was popularized in 1999 by General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who realized he and his management team didn’t know enough about the Internet. Welch told hundreds of his senior executives to seek out younger mentors among the company’s newest employees. Most of these tech savvy mentors were in their 20s and 30s.

Today, it would be hard to find a senior executive who didn’t know how to use the Internet. But working knowledge of social media is another story. WSJ cites a managing director, age 42, who said he learned from his younger mentors how to spice up his tweets – rumored to be “very boring," Kwoh writes.

Another ad agency executive extolled the virtues of his younger mentor, who had taught him not only about the latest apps but how to be more flexible in the workplace.

“There’s an assumption that if you’re senior, you have a lot to teach, and if you’re junior, you have a lot to learn, and I'm saying let’s challenge the status quo," Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen, told WSJ.

Forbes blogger Lisa Quast earlier this year highlighted the advantages of reverse mentoring, including the exchange of knowledge and empowering emerging leaders. Quast also pointed out that reverse mentoring doesn’t require much in the way of new processes, “just the ability to match up employees of different generations and then encourage each team to meet regularly to exchange ideas and challenge each other.”

Have any of you had a younger mentor or an older mentee? How did the mentorship work out? What did you learn? What did you teach?

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 Steve Dumont Connecticut

My issue is in calling this mentoring or reverse mentoring. This is passing along a skill and a narrow sliver of perspective. Years ago, a younger alumni friend showed me how to text, and he forced me to learn through practice. I readily ask those in their 20's questions on internet technology. I do not inquire as to the future course of my career and life. That is for my mentor(s).

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM, NCMA Fellow

Both parties in a mentoring relationship should be open and willing to learn from one another. I've mentored a number of younger professionals over the last few years and I always learn something new and of value. Mentoring is a win-win relationship where both the mentor and mentee can grow, both professionally and personally. The hardest task in mentoring is to carve out the time needed to ensure that the relationship is not superficial.

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 Bill Boston

Everybody, in general, has areas of deficiency and of strength. If you want to learn in an area of deficiency, ask someone who is strong in that area. Age difference is irrelevant - let go of ego issues or unhelpful social mores.

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