Reverse Mentoring or Reciprocal Learning? Rethinking Cross-generational Learning in the Diverse, Digital World
Reverse mentoring, the practice of pairing senior executives (mentees) with younger employees (mentors) to develop older, senior executives’ technology and digital acumen, is gaining steam. Companies such as the BBC, Microsoft, UnitedHealth, and Target are among those creating and implementing reverse mentoring programs for their employees. General Electric was one of the first to launch a program in 1999 to tap young employees to teach older executives how to use the Internet. The programmatic goal for these companies is to harness millennials’ and Gen Z’s digital skills and knowledge to educate and develop Baby Boomers and Gen X employees’ technology and social media skills.
Microsoft Austria launched their reverse mentoring program in 2014. Michael Jacobs, General Manager, was paired with mentor, Magnus Svorstøl Lie, Partner Sales Executive through the Microsoft Academy of College Hires (MACH) program. Michael gained first-hand knowledge of topics ranging from new digital communication tools to workplace trends. Magnus didn’t walk away empty-handed. Through his time with Michael, he had a front-row seat to view leadership at work and the larger business picture.
Traditional mentoring normally involves a seasoned exec showing the ropes to a younger and often less experienced colleague. Here it’s the complete opposite: digital natives, new to the world of work, with completely different social behaviors and backgrounds are coaching senior leaders on what the workplace should look like, what drives younger talent, and how to move forward,” explains Michael Jacobs, General Manager, Microsoft Norway.
The biggest challenge between generations X and Y, is that X needs to manage Y, and Y needs to adapt to X. And reverse mentoring does exactly that, it’s a bridge-builder between our generations.” Magnus Svorstøl Lie, Partner Sales Executive & MACH.
Microsoft witnessed the results from this program: it creates a two-way street to share valuable information and skills that drive and positively impact business while growing new leaders.
Is It Reverse Mentoring or Something Else?
At its core, the goals and concepts of reverse mentoring are a genius approach, but is it really mentoring?
Rene Petrin argues that it is not, and we’re inclined to agree. BusinessDictionary.com defines mentoring as an “Employee training system under which a senior or more experienced individual (the mentor) is assigned to act as an advisor, counselor, or guide to a junior or trainee. The mentor is responsible for providing support to, and feedback on, the individual in his or her charge.” Petrin views reverse mentoring as coaching rather than true mentoring. “For a younger person to truly mentor an older person, that younger one has to have sufficient maturity to relate to the older worker in such a way that will create the mentoring relationship. I find this highly unlikely in most cases, particularly if the mentors are younger workers.”
Coaching, as defined by Petrin, “doesn’t require an intimate, trusting relationship. Coaching requires the expert, who is the coach, to be able to convey his or her expertise to the coachee. The coach’s style of coaching may impact how successful s/he is as a coach, but the expertise can be passed on to the mentoree regardless.”
Neither the commonly held definition of reverse mentoring or Petrin’s coaching definition hit the mark. Inherent in mentoring and coaching is a relationship based on trust. This is the foundation for change to occur. Without it, unearthing internal obstacles that may prevent behavior change is impossible.
Instead, what seems to be happening between many of the dyads, or relationships, is what we refer to as reciprocal learning. The relationship goes beyond traditional mentoring by paving the way for an exchange of learning where a wealth of existing experience is present on both sides. It serves as a two-way street. If the program is developed and implemented with that goal in mind, it can go beyond technology and social media training and education to include operations, customer preferences, and diversity.
Reciprocal learning expands the current notion of reverse mentoring and opens the door for companies to leverage more than technology and social media training. Consider this: women comprise half of the college educated workforce, but represent only 29% of science and engineering jobs. As the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) notes, this percentage drops in the leadership ranks in both these fields. In 2017, women comprised only 5% of CEOs in S&P 500 companies while men still significantly outnumbered women in the boardroom. There’s room for improvement, and reciprocal learning serves as one tool among many to promote gender-inclusive leadership development.
If creating and implementing a reciprocal learning program sounds like a win for your organization, consider these success factors outlined by SHRM to help you begin to draft your program foundation:
Keep the Conversation Going
Stay tuned for our next blog where we delve deeper into reciprocal learning benefits, guidelines, and success measures.
 Reverse Mentoring: Novel Necessity or Condescending Craze? | Regus. (2018, January 05). Retrieved January 18, 2018, from https://www.regus.com/work-us/reverse-mentoring-novel-necessity-condescending-craze/?utm_campaign=Engagement_Newsletter_1801_IE&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua
 For the purposes of this article, we are categorizing millennials, or Generation Y, as those people born 1977 to 1995. Generation Z, also referred to as iGen or Centennials, represent people born 1996 and later. They are beginning to enter the workforce, and like millennials, grew up with unprecedented exposure and access to technology and social media. Generation X were born between 1965 and 1976, while Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964.
 Reverse mentoring: How millennials are becoming the new mentors. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2018, from https://news.microsoft.com/europe/features/reverse-mentoring-how-millennials-are-becoming-the-new-mentors/
 Reverse mentoring: How millennials are becoming the new mentors.
 Mentoring. BusinessDictionary.com. Retrieved January 15, 2018, from BusinessDictionary.com website: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/mentoring.html
 Petrin, R. (n.d.). Business Mentoring Matters: Why Reverse "Mentoring" is Not Mentoring. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from http://www.management-mentors.com/about/corporate-mentoring-matters-blog/bid/97925/Why-Reverse-Mentoring-is-Not-Mentoring
 Petrin, 2018.
 Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2018, from https://ngcproject.org/statistics
 Gubbi, P., Hubbard, S., & Smith, R. (2017, February 16). How to Create a Successful Reverse Mentoring Program to Promote Gender Diversity. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from https://blog.shrm.org/blog/how-to-create-a-successful-reverse-mentoring-program-to-promote-gender-dive
 Wiener-Bronner, D. (2017, December 18). The ranks of women CEOs got even smaller this year. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://money.cnn.com/2017/12/18/news/women-ceos-2017/index.html
 Gubbi, 2017.
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