Think of the modern workplace and a number of features may spring to mind: technological innovations, flexible and remote working, to name a few. However, a more social factor is also at play: the multigenerational workforce. For the first time in history, it is now feasible that a workforce could comprise employees from four different generations, i.e. the World War II Generation (born 1929-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1979) and Generation Y/Millennials (born after 1980).
The characteristics of a generation
In 2012, Ashridge Business School identified that Generation Y (Gen Y) has grown up in an environment that is very different to previous generations. Additionally, their survey of managers from around the world found that Gen Y:
- comes to the workplace with different skills;
- is motivated by different things;
- thinks differently about learning and development; and
- approaches work relationships differently.
As noted by Steve Regus, writing for HR magazine in 2012, Gen Y also take a less hierarchical attitude towards work, and place a high importance on mentoring and feedback. The trick, according to Regus, is for organisations to utilise the strengths of this diverse workforce to their advantage, by creating opportunities to learn from each other.
The technological benefits of reversing
One way that some organisations have approached this is through reverse mentoring. Rather than following the usual path of older, more senior employees being assigned a newer colleague to mentor, reverse mentoring (unsurprisingly) sees younger or newer employees sharing their knowledge with company stalwarts. An early champion of this strategy in the 90s was Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric. Welch recognised the importance of capitalising on the skills of the company’s younger employees, and instigated an initiative that saw older employees learn how to use Netscape. Today, reverse mentoring is commonplace in global companies including Microsoft and Cisco.
Technology is an area in which reverse mentoring is particularly valuable. Having grown up in an age of constant technological change and development, Gen Y are ideally placed to offer insight into how technological innovation can benefit an organisation and its processes. Crucially, technological innovation has also opened up the possibility of working more flexibly, something that is highly valued by Gen Y employees. Senior employees who have taken part in reverse mentoring programmes have also highlighted gaining an insight into the potential benefits of flexible working as one of the positive outcomes of developing a mentoring relationship with a younger employee. Thus, opening up this dialogue between generations can potentially diffuse conflict between the traditional 9-5 generations and the less hierarchical Gen Y.
A two-way street
In practice, reverse mentoring has been found to be less ‘teaching an old dog new tricks’ and more of an exchange of information and experience. At General Electric, one of the most basic benefits for the young mentors was simply the ability to gain contacts in the upper echelons of the company. The mutual benefits of the relationship can also be seen in terms of the insight it offers each party. The older participant gains in terms of gaining new perspectives on the company’s industry, and the thinking of its workforce, while the younger gains a better understanding of the company’s strategies and objectives, and becomes better placed to recommend actions or technologies that may support these.
Reverse mentoring – how to do it
In 2013, Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work published an evaluation of the implementation of a reverse mentoring initiative by The Hartford, a leading US insurance company. The company’s CEO had identified a need for the company to become more confident in its use of digital technologies, particularly social media, and recognised that its younger employees were best placed to drive this forward. Following a successful initial pilot that went onto become a national initiative within the company, The Hartford highlighted the following factors as crucial to the success of any reverse mentoring programme:
- the creation of a project timeline;
- identifying the business objectives – link the reverse mentoring programme to what the business is trying to achieve as far as possible;
- ensure that mentors are fully informed of what mentees are expecting to get out of the exchange;
- making sure the initiative has clear agendas and timelines;
- using the mentor role as a way of keeping younger employees motivated; and
- encourage both mentors and mentees to be open to the relationship and gaining new knowledge, and to respect that each other approaches learning differently.
The final point is echoed by the majority of companies who have used reverse mentoring within their organisation. Initially, Cisco had issues around more senior employees adapting to younger employees’ more informal way of working. As they, and other reverse mentoring adoptees have discovered, though, the key is commitment to the programme, in recognition of the value it can bring to the business.
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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather Cameron’s post on how entrepreneurship drives growth in the UK.