The Importance of Reverse Mentoring for Millennials

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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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Daniel,
I like the concept.
In practicality you would need a recognized skill set, expertise/knowledge to base that model on – meaning it would be hard for a more seasoned ‘veteran’ to want to participate in this exercise if no value is perceived other than contributing to a ‘cool new exercise’.
And I really mean that comment around personal career growth – understanding that every single being has things/thoughts they can contribute to at all time that is worth somebody else's time (older or younger).
Or are you saying that regardless of personal growth the older generation should invest in the Millenials - and that it is one way to do it?

Hi PV,

I appreciate the comment! I have to agree with you in terms of practical application. As nice as it would be for the older generations help develop the Millennials for purely altruistic reasons, you and I both know that is simply not realistic. That is, no one will be a part of a reverse mentoring program if they don't see benefit in it for themselves.

And many benefits do exist for the older partner in this relationship. Short term, the elder businessman gains a thorough understanding of the rising consumer demographic. Long term, they cultivate leadership -- be it in their organization, or for society as a whole.

Since this is about practicality, I have to think the former [within the organization] would be easier to actually implement. And implementation raises another set of issues altogether. For example, and this is just speculation, based on the assumption Millennials are uncomfortable with a position of leadership, a reverse mentoring program would likely need to INVITE Millinnials to particpate. If it were to solicit applications, they may only receive candidates who were already perceiving themselves as potential leaders; thereby limiting one of the primary benefits of reverse mentoring.

Do you (or anyone else) have some other suggestions or thoughts on the successful implementation of reverse mentoring?

Daniel,
Excellent article. Thank you for the insight.

Your ideas on the image of leaders sometimes held by Millennials seemed spot-on. In addition to the super-human leader, another misperception of leaders I’ve come across with a range of ages, is the negative image of leaders often propagated in media and indeed, real life examples. The image of a leader being cutthroat, political, unethical and egotistical is commonplace. Both extremes exist of course and are the ones we most often hear about, but the truth is there are many good leaders out there who are inspiring, motivating and collaborating daily with people that achieve no notoriety or their fifteen minutes of fame.

Regarding, the practice of mentoring, I can relate very positive personal experiences. As a trained mentor who has participated in both formal and informal mentoring for over a decade now, there have many been times where I’ve sought the advice and counsel of my mentees. Often I’ve called a mentee and told them of a certain situation I was facing and asked what they would do or how they’d handle it. Their feedback has both helped me gain perspective on my situation and provided me with valuable insight into their thought processes and approach. They’ve often expressed appreciation for the opportunity and practice to lead me. That value has encouraged me to continue the practice. Now I know to call it Reverse Mentoring!

Thanks again for an insightful article.