Throughout my career in the corporate world, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to work in several projects whose domains were new to me. For instance, there was a period where I was working for a client who wanted to set up infrastructure data centers in the ASEAN region. I had an idea about what servers were, had never seen one in person. I had an idea of what a data center was but had never been to one. I had an idea, theoretical knowledge, but no practical exposure. It was therefore quite natural for me to be overwhelmed by the new role.
I remember reaching out to one of the technical leads within the program and opening to him about my limited knowledge in infrastructure. He was kind enough to acknowledge my shortcomings and offered a helping hand. Over the course of the next few days and weeks, I learnt the nuances of infrastructure management. Things that I learnt from him helped me over the course of next year in delivering several back-to-back successful projects. This is, reverse mentoring at play.
Other examples of reverse mentoring could be where we have asked the youngest member of the house about operating the newest gadget or the way to maneuver a new phone. We are in awe of the way even school kids use technology with ease. Youngsters today are the digital natives and are hence comfortable with anything. So is also the case with music, films, the OTT platform, and cuisine. The young ones know more at a young age that most of us did at ours. It is no surprise that this aspect of our behavior has also seeped into the corporate world workplace where young staff mentors seniors staff members.
Mentoring is a very subtle role, where someone guides a fresh entrant into areas like academics, work, films, music, leadership or sports. It takes some amount of handholding, especially in highly competitive and complex fields. A person who mentors the other must first be adept at what he’s sharing and at peace with his/her own accomplishments in life. An insecure person can rarely become a good mentor.
What is reverse mentoring all about
It’s a way of the youngsters mentoring the seniors and the latter learning from them with an open mind. Someone would say what is this brouhaha about, whoever mentors, how does age matter? It does, wish a resounding yes! Seniority, for long, has been associated with age and experience and not with the quantum of knowledge and skills that one possesses. So the more numbers of years you have put into your work and organization, the more senior you are perceived to be. But gone are those days now. We routinely have young bosses, as young as in their twenties many times, who are dynamic leaders, thoroughly professional, and well versed with their domain knowledge. Their levels of understanding, adaptability, flexibility towards work and life, grasping new knowledge quickly and being able to apply it to the work at hand, is much superior that most ‘seniors’ who have been digital migrants.
Reverse mentoring enables someone senior to be mentored by a younger person. If this happens in an office environment, it can give dramatic results. The younger ones have a fresh perspective about technology, social media, art and consumer insights. They are more forthcoming in sharing, give candid feedback and are open to sharing whatever they know for they know there’s plenty of stuff out there that anyone can have access to.
If a company resorts to reverse mentoring practice, there are some key points that must be borne in mind:
- Seniors are generally averse to acknowledging that they don’t know something. Worse still, admitting that they don’t and learning it from a junior would often be a dent to their ego. If that is taken care, then there’s a lot to learn from young ones who are eager to share.
- Seniors can also share their experiences, which they generally do, with the youngsters, which makes it a mutually beneficial relationship.
- Senior workers would have normally completed their education around 10 to 20 years ago, which is like a few generations down the line in today’s scenario. One cannot expect to be adept at everything contemporary while we have not been in touch with new developments. The only way is to learn it by yourself or get mentored by someone who has recently learned it, even if it means form a young worker.
- Organizations save a lot of time and money when young workers mentor senior ones. The healthy relationship also results in a new found respect for each other and a deep friendship because each one is secure in his/her own zone. Young mentors feel happy and empowered when they train the seniors and that helps break ice in the initial days.
Barriers to Reverse Mentoring
There could be some barriers to reverse mentoring, of course and on expected lines:
- Age is one thing that doesn’t allow us to exist peacefully. Being older than someone makes us feel we are by default much more knowledgeable and all-knowing than the young ones, which may not be true at all.
- The young ones have a more casual approach towards learning. They may get distracted faster, expect you to know things that they take for granted (like starting a machine, which could also involve some amount of learning.
- The young mentor must also bear in mind that the seniors’ way of learning and the pace at which they do, may not be the same as theirs. Certain things like downloading apps, recalling new trends may not come naturally to the seniors.
- Ego could be a big barrier in reverse mentoring. While the seniors must keep it away as they learn something new from juniors, the latter must also keep it at a mile’s distance lest they feel they’re superior in some way than the seniors. Each aspect of a person’s work life has its own importance. The juniors’ knowledge may be updated, but the seniors have a better grasp of handling complex tasks, problem-solving and interpersonal relationships which comes with experience.
- Respect for each other is the cornerstone of this relationship. Not taking each other for granted and sharing what one knows turns this unusual relationship into a win-win for both parties.
Reverse mentoring is a boon for companies that want all their employees to be on the same page. It also helps to forge some extraordinary friendships among people with a large age gap.
As they rightly say, studying may stop when you finish your college, but learning is a life-long pursuit which never stops. In an era when knowledge is at the core of all businesses and staying ahead is crucial to professional survival, one cannot just afford to pick your mentors based on age or experience. You learn from whoever knows it well, irrespective of their age. And what more could one ask for if you find that someone within your organization or from among your acquaintances?
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