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Careers Advice & Resources

Mentorship: one plus one equals three

5 min read

Mentors have played vital roles down the ages, but now they are taking on new relevance and different shapes to respond to a changing world.

From Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Yoda and Luke Skywalker, Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Summers - whether fictional or famous - having a mentor is commonplace. In fact, it is one of the most natural things in life – being guided by someone more experienced and accomplished; who can help navigate and advise you through a problem or towards your goals, and help you stay on track.

It can be a powerful and life-changing experience for the mentee, and often the mentor too: gaining insight into a world they aren’t normally privy to. But how has mentorship changed over the years and what makes a good mentor now?

Well, in some ways, the power relationship and dynamic between the two parties has shifted. Rather than the traditional top-down approach where the most experienced colleague mentors a junior one in a primarily one-way relationship, the approach is being reversed in some cases – and both are now benefiting, and learning goes both ways.

As the HBR reports, so-called ‘reverse mentoring’ serves several purposes. It is, in some ways, a reaction to a world of talent shortages, rapid technological and social change.

The demographics of this contemporary workforce reflect a unique era – a multigenerational workforce working side by side in a world changing at an unprecedented pace. Rapid advances in technology innovations, social issues, and globalization impacts are generating complex challenges for businesses and individuals alike. 

In this radically changing market, the need for two-way mutually beneficial mentoring is at an all-time high.

Fortunately for those interested in mentoring, the diversity of our multigenerational workforce offers plenty of opportunities.

Reversing the relationship

As we’ve explored previously, many companies struggle with retaining Millennial talent, and how to stay relevant to younger consumers. To combat this, leadership teams of major companies around the world have implemented a reverse-mentoring program.

This pairs less-experienced employees with executive team members to share knowledge on topics that are of major strategic and cultural relevance. Mentees often have different areas of expertise than their mentors, such as aptitudes for technology and trends, and typically a more up-to-date education. It is an approach that GE’s Jack Welch reportedly used to get his senior execs up-to-speed on the internet.

Though today, it is less about learning how to use the web, and extends to a more developed and strategic connection – to bridge the knowledge gap – by answering questions like ‘How do I connect with the younger generation’ and ‘How do I attract and retain younger talent?’

Through mentoring, mentors get to see the organisation from a different perspective, and can gain valuable insights and perspectives along the way – and also increase their overall satisfaction with their career.

Benefiting from a change of perspective

Companies report that this reversed approach can have a number of benefits.

Since it provides the transparency and recognition that many Millennials and other generations are looking for, retention of their talents is more likely.

Whilst developing digital skills, development is not normally the sole focus of a good reverse mentoring relationship, though it can be a very useful by-product. A generation of senior leaders brought up on paper-based communication can learn how to interact with their teams with modern digital tools and channels.

This kind of engagement can help to drive progressive culture change too. Not all the roads to the future can be navigated by reference to the past.

Sometimes putting fresh eyes on a problems can help the answer move forward.

This is especially true in areas like inclusion and diversity. It is a way to improve the leadership’s understanding of minority issues, including those of LGBT and ethnic minorities.

How do you make your reverse-mentoring program work best?

Firstly, this is a deliberate exercise in diversity, so it pays to make the pairing diverse too, and that also goes for personality types. Introverts paired with introverts will probably not bring out the best outcome. Nor will throwing a mentor into a relationship without some training on how to successfully structure sessions for maximum effect and overcome the challenges that might arise.

For many executives, there might be a quiet fear of revealing their lack of knowledge to junior employees, and thus feeling vulnerable. As HBR points out, “if the fears are addressed explicitly, open sharing can be incredibly rewarding.”

Additionally, ongoing commitment from the mentee is critical. Nothing will be gained if, after a few sessions, the mentee starts canceling sessions and deeming more important things to concentrate on.

Finally, authentic feedback is critical. Mentor and mentee must be open with one another and take an active role in shaping the relationship and the communication. Is it working, how can it be improved, is it meeting the pre-arranged objectives for both parties?

Working more conventionally

A mentoring relationship like this can also be spun around into the more 'conventional' relationship. After all, the benefits of experience are many - such as an improvement of communication and personal skills, valuable career development opportunities, an increase in industry knowledge and key opportunities for network introductions.

Your career story can be highly instructive for someone close to the beginning of their career.

It might well be inspirational to someone who has not achieved anything like you have yet.

Nicola Müllerschön, Principal, states “So, share your own journey of personal or professional growth. But always let them know about both your triumphs and the areas that you struggle with professionally.” This is an important signal and can help them feel comfortable with you as a person, not just as a colleague. It also teaches the important lesson that there will be both positive and tough experiences ahead.

Acknowledge when you have made mistakes. This allows your mentee to learn valuable lessons, and it is also a demonstration of humility and resilience, a must-have leadership quality. We are all humans, we all make mistakes, but the lesson is always in how we change and move on from those mistakes. Read more on a resilient leader: why admitting your mistakes can make you a better leader.

Christine Kuhl, Partner, adds “Whilst you may have more life and work experience than your mentees, and you do have a lot of wisdom and advice to share, this is not an opportunity for a lecture. Practice active listening with your mentee. There must be space and time for them to speak their mind freely. Listen to understand better, not just to respond.”

Conventional or reverse, good mentorships are incredibly fulfilling for all involved, and well worth investing your time in a long-term relationship.

If you want to discuss these issues and how they affect your organization, or perhaps want advice on your own career trajectory, please get in touch.

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