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Respect your youngers: the wisdom of (reverse) mentoring

What are the benefits of being mentored by a millennial? Should we focus our efforts on designing mentoring programmes that ignore age and rank and are instead based on skills, interests and personality?

‘Reverse’ mentoring has been a recurrent theme in leadership circles these past few years. It involves the act of flipping more traditional mentoring roles so that the more junior person acts as a mentor to the senior person. Many large corporations are experimenting with it, the BBC is connecting its ‘under 35s’ group with senior, usually older managers and even some Guardian journalists gave it a go (see Lead On’s Brain Fuel).

What are the benefits of being mentored by a millennial? Should we focus our efforts on designing mentoring programmes that ignore age and rank and are instead based on skills, interests and personality? I sat down with Clore Fellow and BBC Executive Producer Dylan Haskins and leading arts consultant Graham Devlin to talk about the rationale and benefits of turning mentoring on its head.  The two met when Dylan was undertaking his Clore Fellowship and Graham was impressed by Dylan’s intelligence, eloquence and perspective. Earlier this year Graham asked Dylan to mentor him. They have been meeting regularly in person over the past few months.

“I was particularly interested in understanding what it’s like to be a young person living and working in culture in London, at the moment” Graham said. “So this is about gaining a generationally different perspective and understanding more of the world through their eyes.” They insist their relationship is one of normal mentoring, not reverse mentoring but with the boot moving to another foot. Letting go of ego and embracing your ability to change and learn at any age is key to making a success of it.

At present, Dylan is working with two older mentees, with another in his workplace as part of a pilot scheme he helped set up. “It can give you a heightened self-consciousness and an appreciation of your own experience – ultimately mentoring is all about recognising the worth of different perspectives” Dylan said. In large institutions, like the BBC, intergenerational mentoring can break down hierarchy while also helping the organisation be more in tune with younger audiences or customers.

Is there a set process that enables us to get the most of the engagement? Graham and Dylan prefer a less structured approach, allowing conversations to evolve naturally around big questions and topics of interest. Dylan shares perspectives on technology, politics and culture.  He has been mentored by senior leaders in the past and uses some of his favourite coaching-style open questions from those exchanges such as ‘what are your ambitions’ and ‘where do you want to go next?’ For Graham, the question of relevance and impact is important. More of his career is behind him than ahead of him now and he wants to interrogate what the most interesting, impactful and relevant work he can do is. “It’s a trick to staying interested and interesting”. They might try a few field trips together as the relationship evolves.  

The concept isn’t new. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously asked his top 500 managers to find junior colleagues who could teach them about the internet and using computers in the 90’s. A lot of these schemes have risen in popularity to keep up with technology but the relationship is about much more than teaching Baby Boomers to use Snapchat and Instagram stories. It’s really about building connections of trust and understanding between the generations that should ultimately lead to better, more inclusive workplaces. Oral history has often been passed down between grandparents, parents and their children and over time that dialogue starts to go both ways. My grandma and mum taught me how to cook and now I share my kitchen experiments with them, introduce them to cuisine from all over the world and how my generation can see food as an extension of art and culture.  

How do you go about finding the right (junior) mentor? Graham says it’s about both temperament and perspective. Find someone who has a perspective that you are interested in finding out more about. Personality and core values matching is also important. Particularly in an institutional setting, you need someone who would be comfortable opening up to someone decades their junior and asking genuine questions around their interests and fears. “Ultimately, all mentoring requires trust and respect, as well as thinking clearly about what you need to make the relationship work for both sides.”

This article was orginally posted in our Lead On Newsletter on Intergenerational Leadership.

Themes Coaching & Mentoring