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The Importance of Reverse Mentoring

Reverse mentoring is an informal phenomenon when the “young whippersnapper” enlightens the leadership of a company about this newfangled technology that’s taking over the world, like how do “The Twitters” work and how to keep Siri from being a smart-ass. Personally, I don’t feel like that’s the role of reverse mentoring. Sure, there are benefits in being the social media expert or being able to talk about the Gen-Y market, but as the young employee at a company, wouldn’t you rather be an “up-and-comer,” not a “whippersnapper”?

If you are mentoring up, you can do more.

Four years ago, I was the token Gen-Yer on a panel of professionals being interviewed for a book about generations in the workplace. I was expected to only talk about technology and social media. Instead, I ended up saying that young employees want to feel challenged and empowered. They want role models and an understanding of what is expected of them. Young employees also want to know how they can best contribute, and demonstrate how they can make a difference.

I took my role as the Gen-Yer very seriously. After all, if I was speaking on behalf of an entire generation, I wanted my contribution to be more compelling than explaining why MySpace was being replaced by Facebook. I didn’t want to reverse mentor by being an assumed expert on a narrow topic area. I wanted to show that even if young employees don’t know a lot, they have the capacity to do a lot.

Young employees are sponges who can learn lessons from what they do, sharing those lessons up the chain of command.

At what point in your career is it good to make mistakes? When a $5 billion deal is on the line? Or when someone is working on an internal office project? Making mistakes is part of anyone’s career, but they’re a lot easier to make when the backlash isn’t so huge. Plus, you start learning how to avoid mistakes by making them early on.

Companies can learn a lot from the mistakes employees make. If your company wants to be more innovative, understand that means being open to mistakes. Some safe ways to learn these lessons include:

  • Stretch assignments: Have an employee do something outside their usual expertise. Then check in along the way to see where they’re experiencing difficulty. At the end of the assignment, have them write up what lessons were learned.
  • Suggestion box: Don’t just be open to new ideas on how to improve things, but let those doing the suggesting take ownership of the improvements. Again, there may be struggling and mistakes as part of the process, but they will learn (and improve things) along the way.
  • Share the news: If a project saved money or created efficiency, let the employee share those tips and lessons with the rest of the company. If something massively bombed, don’t see the “teaching moment” as a way to humiliate, but as a way to encourage learning.

Mentoring is incredibly important to everyone, whether your organization has a formal program or not. Consider the idea that knowledge sharing is the same concept, whether it is top-down or bottom-up. If you are a young employee, be the guinea pig willing to try new things and share the insights with the company. You have to be more than the young expert.