The Importance of Reverse Mentoring for Millennials

By Daniel A. Smith, CMA®, CPA
Member of the IMA Leadership Academy mentoring faculty
Senior Business Intelligence Strategist at J. Walter Thompson

For many young professionals, becoming a leader is not a pressing concern. At least at the outset, it’s not even on their radar as a goal or consideration. From their vantage point, achieving success as a leader is extremely difficult, and maybe even impossible. However, this simply is not true, and it is important for Millennials (those born between 1982 and 1999) to recognize that leadership development starts on day one of a new job, and reverse mentoring can be the perfect jumping-off point.

Millennial’s Views on Leadership

Why are young professionals so uncomfortable with the thought of being a leader? In his TedX presentation “Everyday Leadership,” Drew Dudley explains that young people believe leadership is something that is unobtainable to them as an individual. Dudley attributes this belief to Millennials being raised with popular media portraying business leaders, such as Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, as somehow super human. This causes Millennials to believe leadership is a trait people are born with, and only the greatest and luckiest humans are able to evolve and become leaders.

Dudley also explains how Millennials tend to view society as a collective environment and perceive each other as equals. Millennials are highly collaborative by nature and would rather work as a team instead of being a standout superstar. This mindset doesn’t allow young professionals to see themselves as leaders. Instead, they feel as though people who are leaders somehow instinctively “know” they are leaders and don’t need a title to signify their position.

This altered viewpoint is a hurdle that must be overcome. Today’s leaders won’t be around forever and Millennials are eventually going to have to step up and become comfortable filling a leadership position. At the same time, mature business leaders will need to become comfortable with listening to, and learning from, someone younger than them. Fortunately, both of these roadblocks can be overcome simultaneously by the tried and true practice of mentoring.

The Value of Reverse Mentoring

As any young professional knows, the guidance provided by a seasoned professional through the rough waters at the beginning of a career path is an invaluable resource. However, many young professionals only view their mentor as a resource for day-to-day activities while starting out, and fail to tap into the great pool of knowledge they offer in terms of leadership training and development.

One method, called mentoring up – or reverse mentoring – is an example of how mentoring can help a young professional become comfortable with the idea of being a leader. In this model, the mentoring roles are flipped, positioning the young professional as the mentor and the seasoned professional as the mentee. This new arrangement gives young professionals the opportunity to engage in conversations about moving forward, not in a collaborative or passive capacity, but as an individual leader charged with guiding a project forward.

By being exposed to these activities in a safe environment, young professionals can grow comfortable with these actions and begin to see themselves in a leadership role, thus removing the stigma that leadership is something unattainable. Reverse mentoring also helps young professionals gain confidence by proving that leaders are not “super humans” and are real people who practice skills that are developed and improved upon with time.

Senior mentees also stand to benefit from a mentoring up-style program as well. Instead of being the ones guiding and leading a project, the senior mentee must listen and grow comfortable working with, and being lead by, a younger professional.

The important, career-altering benefits that can result from a program similar to mentoring up are numerous. Leadership is something all young professionals need to consider sooner rather than later, and I encourage you to discuss with your mentor how you can begin your own leadership training and development.

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The IMA Young Accounting Pros Blog features the insights of IMA's Young Professionals Committee. Committee members share advice and experiences on careers, continuing education, work/life balance, and other issues affecting young accounting and finance professionals.

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