Recently, I attended an event where a Boomer leader was presenting. Various times throughout his PowerPoint presentation, he experienced technical difficulties and called on a Millennial colleague to rescue him. As I watched the young colleague respond and resolve very basic issues, I was reminded of the deep need for understanding and engaging in reverse mentoring in our inter-generational relationships.
Reverse mentoring is a two-way relationship where individuals learn from one another across generational or cultural lines. This concept has been around for a couple of decades, but has gained popularity in many professional circles in the past decade. Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, explains its importance: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-somethings. They come with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the technology of our future.” Author and cultural expert, Earl Creps, further explains, “The rate of change in our culture puts younger people in touch with things for which their elders sometimes even lack the vocabulary, suggesting the need to go beyond intergenerational tolerance to reconciliation that leads to a new collaboration.”
One definition of mentor is “trusted counselor or guide.” We have traditionally viewed mentoring as primarily an opportunity for those older and wiser to impart their knowledge to those younger or less experienced. This works well when the culture or context is stable and predictable, and we can assume that what worked in the past will work in the future. However, in a season of cultural and technological change such as we are witnessing around us today, the patterns of yesterday may need revision to be effective in the days ahead. We must be prepared to learn from the future as well as the past. Young people intuitively understand elements of the future that can remain hidden to those who are older. Nonetheless, they often lack the wisdom and maturity that comes from years of life and leadership. This is where a partnership between the two becomes incredibly powerful, offering the potential for maximizing the strengths of both perspectives. In this sense, both parties have insight that can place them in the role of counselor or guide.
Earl Creps explains that reverse mentoring “uses the unlikely possibility of a relationship to benefit both parties through mutual learning from honesty and humility.” These elements of honesty and humility are essential to the success of a reverse mentoring relationship. Each party must acknowledge their need for learning. They must be willing to ask questions, listen and step outside of their comfort zone to engage new ideas, skills and perspectives. In doing so, we expose ourselves to an expert in topics and practices that we might otherwise spend time and money learning about through podcasts, books, or seminars.
As I observed the Boomer leader needing technical assistance during his presentation, I was struck by the fact that he expected the Millennials in that audience to learn from what he had to say. However, it appeared that he had not made an effort ahead of time to learn from one of them more about his computer. The irony of this picture is repeated frequently in inter-generational relationships. We must be willing to seek out and invest in relationships with those both younger and older than ourselves. As I think about the individuals who I am learning from in my life right now, many of them are 20 years older or younger than I am. I am thankful for their incredibly diverse and important perspectives that stretch and challenge me. Who are those powerful mentors in your life?
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!