After Matt Neale, CEO of the public relations firm Golin, moved to the U.S. from London in 2015, he realized there was a lot he needed to learn.
The public relations executive had nearly two decades of experience in the communications industry, but he wanted to bone up on American culture, digital technology and more. Rather than turn to a seasoned consultant or a well-established business coach, he connected with Annelise Campbell, a junior employee less than two years out of college. She was digitally savvy, had fresh perspectives on the business and came from a background vastly different than his own.
In short: Neale’s ideal tutor.
“I was looking for someone whose life experience was the opposite of mine,” he says.
The two met monthly, discussing topics such as diversity, changes in their industry and the music scene. Campbell, now 25 coached Neale, now 45, on how to use Snapchat and helped him make Golin’s internship application process more inclusive.
“Those meetings were like a shining star on my calendar,” says Neale. “There were moments when there were really big issues often going on in the country and I’d be able to say, ‘I’d really like to get your perspective on this.’”
Five Generations in One Workplace
Neale reaped the benefits of “reverse mentoring,” which is when a younger staffer coaches a more senior colleague. Jack Welch gave the concept momentum when he implemented it in 1999 while CEO at General Electric. Firms such as PwC, Estee Lauder, Aflac and U.S. Bank have deployed it in an array of ways since.
While the practice took root decades ago, it’s “more critical than ever” as the age gap among workers expands, says Lindsey Pollak, a multigenerational workplace consultant and author of THE REMIX: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.
Today’s professional environment now spans five generations – from Generation Z, Millennials and Generation X to Baby Boomers and Traditionalists, also known as The Silent Generation, born before 1946. There can be a 50-year age difference among those working together.
“That is unprecedented and challenging,” Pollak says. To be successful, “you have to relate to other generations.”
Reverse Mentorship Often Happens Across Generations (But Not Always)
Reverse mentorship comes in a wide variety of forms. While it’s often used to bridge age differences, at times it’s also used to bring together workers with different backgrounds or life experiences, such as a LGBTQ employee coaching a non-LGBTQ senior leader.
At some firms, reverse mentoring happens organically. Other organizations have created formal programs that can include one-on-one meetings or group learning. At U.S. Bank for instance, members of its managing committee assemble an annual team of Millennial employees to advise senior management on how to better serve customers, as well as how recruit and retain employees.
There are executives who have independently sought out reverse mentors. SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan is open about how her “Millennial mentor” helps her to keep up with trends.
And, of course, you don’t need a formal program to learn from younger employees. Chad Brockway, VP of the Cyber Operations Division at security consulting firm Edgeworth Security, says he gleans daily insights from his five direct reports, all of whom are under the age of 30.
“Being open to thoughts and ideas doesn’t mean that you’re not capable in your job,” he says. “There is something to learn from everyone.”
How Does Everyone Benefit?
To be truly successful, all parties should benefit from the experience, say workplace experts.
“Some of the best reverse mentoring relationships go both ways,” says Pollak.
Skylar Werde, president of multigenerational workplace consulting firm BridgeWorks, says to think of it as “holistic mentorship.”
Millennials, for instance, can advise Boomers on how to use technology more efficiently, he says. In turn, Boomers can help a Millennial colleague navigate the sometimes-complex processes and procedures that often arise in a company before an idea can be implemented.
“Both sides have to be there to support each other versus just being there to receive support,” Werde says.
At Golin, Campbell says she gained valuable insights from her meetings with CEO Neale, including “what managing up really looks like and how to do that well,” she says. She also learned how to position herself “in a more actionable way” that would set her up for greater success.
It’s About Sharing Expertise
Although she was initially a little nervous, Campbell felt confident about the skills and perspectives she had to offer to Neale, especially when it came to sharing her experiences as a “young woman of color trying to climb up the ladder.”
Her advice to other young mentors: Think about what you can bring to the relationship. While Neale started his career in an era of faxes and phone calls, she could offer her thoughts on being an entry-level employee in a digital world. She could also give him insights on what it’s like to be a woman of color in a corporate setting.
“It takes away some of the nerves because it’s the thing you know you’re an expert in,” she says.
Campbell has since moved to Dallas from Golin’s office in New York, first working for Golin, and now at another firm. But she and Neale are still in touch. At the same time, Neale plans to connect with another colleague to continue his learnings.
“I definitely want to do another one internally… I only had good experiences from this one so I’m keen to build on it,” he says.
“I can’t evangelize this enough,” he adds. “It costs nothing except a little bit of time.”
How to Make Your Reverse Mentorship Program a Success
There’s no one-size-fits-all template for implementing a successful reverse mentoring program. Yet it is important to have some structure, says Pollak, especially since there is an inherent “power dynamic involved when you have a senior and junior person.”
Some steps to take:
Consider your objective
“Step back first and think about what you are trying to accomplish,” says Werde. Is it to create a more inclusive, multigenerational workforce? Is it for those in the top ranks to better understand technology? “Mentorship is one tool of many,” he says, and may not be the right one to use in some cases.
“Before you decide to do this, you really have to understand your organization,” he says. “Mentorship does not work if it feels forced.”
Get executives involved
Senior leadership buy-in is essential, says Pollak.
“The first step is to get your CEO or senior leadership team reverse mentors,” she says. “You have to model this from the top.”
Review the mentor-mentee relationship carefully
“It’s important they don’t have a direct working relationship so there isn’t a power play there,” advises Neale.
Also consider pairing colleagues with different backgrounds and genders, says Jason Wingard, PhD, dean and professor at Columbia University's School of Professional Studies.
Set some ground rules
“If it’s a formal program, it’s up to the organization to set the guidelines,” says Pollak. “If you are casually doing it, it’s worth discussing the rules of engagement.”
Among the things she says to review: How often to talk, how that discussion will take place (in person, via phone, Skype, etc.), which person will be responsible for calendaring that appointment and how long the mentoring arrangement will last.
And be sure to address privileged conversations.
“Set out some very clear ground rules around confidentially,” says Neale.
Establish individual expectations and goals
Think about: “What are the goals? What are the outcomes that you want from the relationship?” says Ilene Siscovick, a partner at management consulting firm Mercer. “What’s the benefit for each person in the relationship?”
Have some conversation ideas ready
Among the topics to possibly cover, per Pollack:
What are your favorite technologies?
What questions do you have about my generation?
What apps do you have?
What are your favorite books?
What publications do you read on a regular basis?
Where you get information about our industry?
There are many ways for a younger and older staffer to interact that go beyond sitting in a conference room and talking, says Pollak. An information exchange can take place at a networking event, at a lunch out or even at a mall where the mentor shows a mentee how they use a digital device to shop.
Expand the mentoring pool
Millennials are doing a lot of the reverse mentoring, but that doesn’t exclude them from getting their own younger coaches. “If you’re a Millennial, go find yourself someone in Gen Z,” Pollak says.