Contributed Column

An Entrepreneur’s Perspective

by Christopher Loso

Mentoring with a twist

Traditional mentoring is an effective way for an experienced employee to offer guidance to a less experienced employee. Many organizations sponsor such programs that aim to build strong talent and increase their competitive edge. However, technology advancements have created a twist to traditional mentoring.

Today, because it’s common for a young, entry-level employee to have a better understanding of technology than his/her experienced colleague, many organizations are turning mentoring upside down. An emerging phenomenon called reverse (or reciprocal) mentoring gives younger employees a chance to teach senior executives about innovative business methods such as trends in social media, consumer culture, and unconventional operations.

A growing number of companies have created reverse mentoring programs — luminaries like Cisco, Hewlett Packard, British Petroleum, Johnson & Johnson, Accenture, IBM, and Procter & Gamble. These programs have helped them expand brands and boost profits. The concept is not new; Jack Welch championed the idea when he was CEO at General Electric.

It’s important to remember that reverse mentoring is a two-way street. It gives senior executives an opportunity to stay up to date with the latest technologies and workplace trends. It helps junior employees see the larger picture of their ideas and glimpse macro-level management issues. It expands multi-generational engagement and reduces conflicts between generations in the workplace, increasing retention rates for younger employees.

Below are some tips to help ensure that a reverse mentoring relationship is successful for your organization:

• Make the perfect match. Reverse mentoring involves two people with extremely different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures, so creating the ideal partnership is vital. Choose mentors with good social skills who have the confidence to interact with and teach senior management.

• Set a level playing field. Start with an orientation session. It should give the mentors and mentees an opportunity to interact with each other as individuals in a supportive environment. This sets the stage for the whole program and in time helps transform from traditional hierarchies.

• Be very clear about specific goals. Clarity about the broad organizational goals will help participants take the process seriously. However, each mentoring partnership is unique. Participants may also enjoy and benefit from helping each other in ways not defined by the program. A young mentor might help an executive choose a new cell phone, or an executive might share tips on how a new entrant can advance his/her career.

Train both parties for their roles. Junior participants need training in how to confront and challenge more senior participants, while senior participants must learn how to be receptive to these challenges.

• Review relationships regularly to ensure they are on track. It’s all too easy for both junior and senior participants to fall back into a hierarchical pattern of behavior. Ongoing review can establish a pattern of effective “upward” learning.

• Start small. Developing safe and positive reverse mentoring relationships can be challenging. It’s best to start with a small pilot program, then use pilot participants as guides for rolling out the program on a wider scale.

As employers look for ways to better manage their increasingly age-diverse workforce, reverse mentoring just might be the start of something big. The practice could pave the way for a new standard of open dialogue in business stretching far beyond technology. Ideally, learning and information sharing would cross all lines of seniority and responsibility. After all, advancing yourself in today’s volatile economy is all about lifelong learning. Creating a 360-degree dialogue between generations may be one of the most effective mechanisms for learning.

Christopher Loso is vice president of Loso’s Professional Janitorial Services, Inc. in South Burlington, www.lososjanitorial.com, and former executive at Booz Allen Hamilton and Deloitte Consulting.

Index of Contributed Columns

For information on submitting a contributed column see here.