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The mentor-mentee relationship is about building trust and relating cross-generationally. In business, these are the things that matter most.
“Another year older, another year wiser….” Yes, we’ve all enjoyed learning from those with more experience. In business, organizations of all types have long valued the role of mentoring in this traditional view. But, formal mentoring programs are trending in a reverse route – with the younger (and sometimes wiser) generation leading their older colleagues.

The idea of the millennial generation teaching Gen Xers and baby boomers is happening through formal reverse mentoring programs, according to Marketwatch (“Why Gen Z and millennial workers make great mentors,” October 2018). Today’s workforce spans four generations (millennials being the largest) and is more diverse than ever. And, companies that offer mentoring are in a better position to recruit and retain top talent, says a 2016 Deloitte survey on millennials (see Margaret Michaels’ IMA Blog post: “Not Your Parents’ Kind of Career Mentoring Program”).

The idea of reverse mentoring prompts me to ask the question, “Can you teach an old dog new tricks?” To help answer it, I was fortunate to meet one of IMA’s younger professional members, Zohaib Akhtar, CMA, CSCA, CIA. Zohaib was one of six participants who attended the IMA Global Board and committee meetings last fall through the Young Professional Leadership Experience program. He’s also a faculty member of the IMA Leadership Academy, and is one the early adopters of the CSCA specialty credential. Outside of his volunteer IMA activities, Zohaib works in data science for a major consumer packaged goods company in Canada, where he is part of a reverse mentoring program.

MG: How did you get involved in reverse mentoring?

ZA: For the past few years, my company started a reverse mentoring program, and I’m currently one of about a dozen younger employees paired with a senior executive. In my case, it’s someone from the C-Suite. Since, by design, it’s a reverse mentoring program, I’m charged with taking the lead in initiating the relationship and making sure we share knowledge and experiences in the most effective way.

MG: Why did your company adopt a reverse mentoring program?

ZA: Besides creating a collaborative workplace, the company specifically needed a way to cultivate the succession pipeline. As baby boomers are stepping down and retiring, the younger generation needs to step up into new and more advanced roles. This is happening at companies everywhere. There’s quite a bit of knowledge to pass along; on a professional and a technical level certainly, but also on a cultural level. Building a strong culture is important and enables us to attract and retain top talent.

MG: What exactly do you do as part of the mentor-mentee pair?

For a year, we each commit to meeting once or twice a month, face-to-face, to share experiences, exchange ideas, and see what we can learn from each other. Everyone has busy schedules, so we set aside an hour to do this. It might look like catching up in the office, taking a walk around the building, or better yet, meeting outside the office for lunch or coffee. In this relationship, hierarchy and core job responsibilities become irrelevant. It’s about building a relationship and creating trust to share whatever is on our minds. We could talk about what’s happening at the company, in the business in general, or even personal things.

MG: To what degree is this mentoring program about sharing technical knowledge?

ZA: While there is some sharing and training on technical knowledge (for instance, how can the senior leaders more effectively work with data or use Instagram), the program focuses more on culture. It’s about how we can communicate, relate, and collaborate across generations with different work styles. I’m learning about how the C-Suite relates to younger staff and how they can be influencers. I learned quite a bit about servant leadership. You get what you give. The bottom line: The mentor-mentee relationship is about building trust and relating cross-generationally. In business, these are the things that matter most. As a mentor, your influence can extend beyond just your mentee, to their team or department. Your ability to spur change is magnified through this relationship.

MG: What are your top tips for making a reverse mentoring relationship work?

ZA: I have three pieces of advice for reverse-mentoring success:

  1. Begin by setting some ground rules. Confidentiality is a must and the pair must agree to that. Be respectful of each other’s time, how often to meet, etc. Set basic expectations of what the relationship is about and what it isn’t.
  2. Focus on the relationship. It’s a person-to-person relationship, rather than a supervisor-to-subordinate relationship. There are two people involved, and it can’t be just about one person. Forget about the hierarchy and consider a more casual setting to meet, one that’s different from your work setting. This will help foster more genuine and free-flowing conversations.
  3. Have an open mindset. Be candid and open with the other person. Anything can be on the agenda, so try not to be scripted. Following the requirements of the program aren’t where the personal growth takes place. Listen and seek to understand before trying to be understood. Like anything else in life, you don’t know where this relationship will take you. I’m confident that my mentor-mentee relationship will last, in some form, long after the program concludes. After that, I hope to work with another person and do it all over again.
And, be open to the fact that it might not work. It’s easy to say you’re going to make time, be candid, and listen to what the other person has to say. Sometimes work, life, and personal preferences get in the way and it doesn’t always happen. In this case, do what you need to do with the time you have and be open to future opportunities.

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