Follow the Leader: Can Reverse Mentoring Work Beyond Tech?
Written by BPG Bates Strategic Director, Kevin Jones
Featured in Communicate ME
“Youth,” playwright George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, “is wasted on the young.” Spoken from the summit of a lifetime of character-shaping experience, Shaw’s incisive line nonetheless underscores a longing for the candid simplicity, easy ambition and unencumbered perspective that the young, allegedly, take for granted. Let’s re-contextualise Shaw’s veiled pining to today: imagine soldering the wisdom coursing through the matured, dyed-in-the-wood worldview of some towering figure of corporate success to the nimble, bring-on-the-future life-force of a 21st century Millennial. How powerful would that be?
Enter: reverse mentoring
Reverse mentoring. This novel inversion of the august institution of mentoring—a younger employee guides and coaches his/her senior higher-up—has actually been around for almost two decades. First championed by former Chairman of General Electric, Jack Welch, in 1999, reverse mentoring initially focused on imparting tech-related skills to upper managers who were left in the Internet lurch: Welch himself admitted to having learned how to “surf the web” thanks to his twenty-something mentor.
Today, digital-native mentors are more likely to whip their senior charges into social media shape—everything from, say, sprucing up their tweets as part of a wider new business acquisition strategy, to hand-holding them through less-travelled channels like Periscope and Snapchat.
But if we truly embrace the spirit of Shaw’s lament, it seems to imply that far more can be gleaned from the youthful mind-set than mere technical awareness and digital savvy. If, as logic would have it, youngsters think entirely differently from their elders (can the recent onslaught of research on today’s teens’ cerebral hard-wiring and multi-tasking agility be wrong?), then why would we not harness their inputs beyond tech?
Turning “Wait, but” into “What if”
The initial hurdle is daunting: how will the potently trained, high-powered manager, touted by his peers and beefed up on experience, admit that a freshly graduated corporate novice, her head always hinged to a device, can add value to his business M.O? While our ad industry context amplifies the importance of reaching out to Millennials, they are more often than not reduced to an elusive, ad-loathing demographic that makes us jump through content-creation hoops. The way in—convincing the sceptical boss—is paved with the power of “what if”: a new vein of thinking could actually invigorate the tried-and-true POV, the trusted instinct, the reliable retort. Suddenly, the man in the corner office sees a glimmer of a worldview informed by today that is perhaps a bit better at embracing tomorrow. The leader is ready to be led.
A Case in Point
Graduate programmes these days seem to be a dime a dozen. I can name at least three regional communication industry colleagues who have witnessed young interns’ Odyssey-like meanderings through their agencies: a bit of time in account management, a spell in strategy, a breeze through media and PR only to dash against the rocks of “Well, you know, I just don’t think I’m cut out for a big agency.”
Lived experience, though, has put me nose-to-nose with a well-oiled graduate programme focusing more on matching upstream needs (of the agency) with desires (of the graduate). In my case, a young “strategy-inclined” candidate was earmarked for the strategic planning department. Once selected, she was inducted into the agency culture and my department’s methodology. That’s when my reverse mentoring epiphany occurred. In tailoring this departmental initiation, I found myself confronted with bright new approaches to problem solving, information processing and storytelling. The leap to asking, “How are these new graduates thinking and what can we learn?” was a short one. From there, I made a case for laddering it up to the C-suite.
“Teaching” corporate top-brass about social media is one-way mentoring: grasping the value of the recent Paris Netflix campaign, for example, in which traditional advertising is embellished with a face-swapping Snapchat function, doesn’t require particularly hard-core schooling. Once we bring reverse mentorship into the “management” space, however, it’s a more multi-directional exchange. The elder mentee, for example, finds himself scrutinising more closely how he reached a solution—examining what was previously the ‘workings in the margins’—faced with the analytical rigour and “ground-up” approach of the youthful mentor. The younger mentor, thanks to the senior mentee, feels more at ease looking through a management lens, as if both were able to talk and think like leaders, each in their own way. Mentor and mentee, it seems, shift roles throughout the process.
Reverse mentoring in the management space is as fraught with possibilities as it is obstacles. It’s a two-way exercise in maturity: the time-honoured leader has the courage to let go; the eager, untrained rookie summons the wisdom to step up. Choreographed correctly, reverse mentoring can bear interesting fruit for any organisation. Issues like embracing empathy, understanding knowledge gaps and appreciating difference will rise to the surface less as abstract concepts and more as shared experiences. So, far from youth being wasted on the young, there is great merit in spreading it around—to the benefit of all.