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Reverse Mentoring: An Invaluable Tool for Personal & Professional Development

I doubt that there are many people who would disagree with the benefits of mentoring programs and relationships.  Mentoring has been an integral part of most organizations’ development programs for years.  After all, what’s to debate about the value of more senior, experienced professionals providing guidance, advice, and coaching to less experienced employees?  The benefits can be realized for both parties; for mentors, the ability to provide advice and share the “I wish I knew this back when….” moments forces them to look inward and reflect on past mistakes as well as past successes, and that reflection and knowledge sharing can help to hone their leadership skills.  For mentees, the opportunity to have that sounding board in someone who has “been there, done that,” talking about real life situations and experiences, can be more valuable than sitting through a theoretical leadership development class, or at least can greatly enhance the learnings from such classes, and can help them avoid some of the mistakes the mentor may have made.

However, have you ever stopped to think about the value that can come out of a “reverse mentoring” relationship?  For those who aren’t familiar, reverse mentoring is exactly as it sounds; instead of the more senior employee providing guidance to a younger, less experienced employee, in a reverse mentoring relationship the individual who would typically take on the mentee role become the mentor to teach the more senior employee.

What?  How does that make sense?  What could a lesser experienced person possibly teach someone who has been in the workforce for years longer, who has amassed a much greater amount of knowledge and experience?

But you see, that outlook can, and will, cause individuals and organizations to miss out on another invaluable way to develop and enhance their knowledge.  Though younger employees may have less business related experience and knowledge gained by years of first hand experiences, they often enter the workforce with more superior knowledge and experience in other areas, particularly technology related.  Younger generations have grown up using technology for most, if not all of their lives, so learning and adapting to new technology is second nature, whereas more seasoned folks may struggle with adoption, or at the very least may find it not quite as second nature to keep pace with changes and advances.  Younger employees may have a keen sense of how emerging technology can be leveraged to enhance not only your own individual knowledge and development, but also how it can be applied to your business.

Still skeptical?  Let me share my own reverse mentoring experience…

I’ve worked at my current company for quite some time.  Although I’ve worked in the same department and with many of the same people for a long time, I’ve always prided myself with keeping myself current and staying abreast of trends.  A few years back, we hired an HR Coordinator fairly fresh out of college who came to us with boundless energy and a plethora of new ideas.  Because many of us in the department had been around for a while, it was easy to dismiss her ideas as unrealistic, or out of tune with the reality of the business.  However, she set to work trying to educate and convince our department of the value of social media for business.  Admittedly, I wasn’t as in tune as I could have been with social media at the time; I was at first a reluctant adopter of Facebook (hard to imagine that now) and I certainly hadn’t even considered Twitter.  But Kelly was persistent in trying to convince me of the value of the connections that could be made through social media, and Twitter specifically; persistent enough that I finally decided to give it a try.  And I can honestly say, that changed my life and professional reach exponentially.  Through the connections I’ve made, I have:

  • Met countless HR pros, consultants, and vendors virtually, many of whom I have since met in person, many of whom have become valuable business contacts and friends
  • Connected with a group of women, who together founded the Women of HR blog.  This gave me the opportunity to give blogging a try (which in itself makes you a better HR pro as you think & write).  I am now editing the blog, which keeps me connected to many intelligent HR pros and constantly exposes me to new ideas
  • Gotten involved in HRevolution, where I have met many of my contacts in person and have been exposed to new and progressive ideas about HR and where the function is going
  • Been invited to be part of the social media teams for large national conferences such as SHRM National and the HR Technology Conference
  • Been exposed to many ideas and concepts that I wouldn’t necessarily have learned about in my day to day job
  • Had the opportunity to work on a team to initiate social media involvement for the NY State SHRM conference, and have had the opportunity to educate other HR pros on the benefits of social media and networking
  • Played an integral part of social media education and development of the social media function at my company

Though it’s possible that I would have eventually stumbled into some of these opportunities, they certainly wouldn’t have happened as quickly as they did without Kelly’s guidance.  And every one of them has made me a better, more well-rounded HR professional.

Although the relationship between Kelly and I was never a formal reverse mentoring arrangement, the benefits were certainly still realized.  I encourage everyone to keep that in mind – you may not even need to establish a formal program, but encourage a culture where all employees are open to learning or teaching anyone, regardless of who is more “experienced.”  You just never know what kind of doors it may open.

Jennifer Payne, SPHR is a 15 years HR veteran with experience in employee relations, talent acquisition, and learning & development in the retail grocery industry.  She is a co-founder of Women of HR, a blog dedicated to women in HR, leadership, and business.  She has been a contributing writer since its inception, and currently serves as editor.  She has also served on social media/blogging teams for SHRM National, NY State SHRM, and the HR Technology Conference.

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