This Is Not Your Average Mentorship: Uncommon Mentor-Mentee Pairings Can Have Unique Benefits for Your Company

Mentorship doesn't have to mean older person to younger- there are a lot of dynamic pairings.

Unusual mentor pairings, such as peer mentoring or having an older employee learn from a younger one, can have many unique benefits.

What do you picture when you think of mentoring? Chances are, it is a grizzled, gray-haired elder, with more winters behind them than ahead, taking a young upstart under their wing and instructing them in the ways of business, baseball, or life in general. That’s the traditional idea, and while it is often the case, that model fails to take into account the incredible diversity of experience and expertise in the world. There is no linear progression of learning, and only considering one kind of mentorship to be valid can close off a lot of avenues for learning. If you only see mentorship as going from old to young, your company is definitely missing out on the rich rewards of varied mentorships.

Reverse Mentoring: Learn From the Young

Reverse Mentoring was first championed by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch in the 1990s; in this mentorship pairing, the mentor is typically younger than the mentee. Reverse mentorship works well when it comes to sharing skills that older executives might not have a firm grasp on, like technological innovations in the workplace or social media best practices. This kind of mentorship benefits the mentor as well, since having younger employees serve as mentors can boost their confidence and help them feel like valuable members of the team. Reverse mentorship pairings can also work to bridge the gap between millennial employees and older employees who may distrust millennials’ largely vilified work ethic. In fact, 66 percent of millennials report feeling misunderstood by their peers, while 74 percent of non-millennial workers said they felt that millennials didn’t have the same work ethic as older generations[1. “Study: Millennials’ Work Ethic Is In the Eye of the Beholder,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/01/29/study-millennials-work-ethic-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder/]. Having millennials take the reins in mentorship pairings gives them a chance to show off their skills and work ethic that may have been discounted by older employees.

Studies have found that reverse mentorship pairings can lead to big wins for businesses. Take the case of insurance behemoth The Hartford: the company paired up younger employees with older employees to transfer skills surrounding social media, which executives realized was a big blind spot for them. Hallmarks of the reverse mentorship program included definitive start and end dates, highly structured mentorship meetings, and shared program goals that were collaboratively developed by both junior and senior staff. The mentors themselves met together often to share feedback and best practices.

The result? The mentorship program boasted a more than 70 percent participation rate, and a whopping 97 percent of mentees rated the program effective or extremely effective. The company went on to adopt new, innovative communication habits, including a much-needed update to the company’s electronic usage policy. Plus, the junior employees who participated as mentors benefited from increased exposure to top executives; 11 of the 12 mentors were promoted within a year of the program[2. “Reverse Mentoring at The Hartford: Cross-Generational Transfer of Knowledge About Social Media,” https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/hartford.pdf].

What made The Hartford’s reverse mentorship experiment so successful? The emphasis on structure certainly played a big part. Creating a structured mentorship program is especially important when younger employees are serving as mentors, since they have less experience in mentor roles. Business leaders should consider implementing a coach who can “mentor” the younger employees on how to be effective mentors themselves throughout the process. In this arrangement, older executives are at the mercy of younger employees that they might not fully trust, and creating structure around the program can put the older executives’ misgivings at ease.

Peer Mentoring: Banish Hierarchies

Here’s another pairing that turns the concept of “mentorship” on its head. In traditional mentorship settings, there’s always a hierarchy: a mentor and a mentee. The assumption is that the mentor possesses more wisdom or knowledge to pass down to the mentee, based on skills gleaned through great experience. In peer mentorship, however, there is no hierarchy – the mentorship pairs are made up of employees from similar backgrounds and levels of experience. Often, peer mentorship works by pairing up similar level employees from different departments or areas of the company. Too often company departments or teams work in isolation; peer mentorship works to break down that isolation and keep more members of the company informed and up-to-date on company initiatives. Peer mentorship also helps bring together employees throughout the company who might share similar struggles. Creating peer mentorship programs for often-marginalized employees who face specific challenges — female leaders, for example — gives these employees a safe space to share frustrations and brainstorm solutions. 

These cross-department exchanges can also save time and resources. For example, I recall that I had a colleague in the marketing department of a company who had a peer-to-peer mentorship with an employee in the IT department. During one of their mentorship meetings, the marketing employee mentioned that her department was considering revamping their outdated employee review process. The IT employee perked up and shared that the IT department recently revamped their own review process with positive results, and offered to share the changes that the department made. Because of the peer mentorship, the marketing employee was able to share valuable insight with her own team, and the marketing department didn’t have to start the performance review revamp from scratch.

Implementing peer mentorships, however, can be a little tricky. For these kinds of mentorships, business leaders may want to consider online avenues of communication instead of just person-to-person meetings. Because peer mentors often come from different departments within a company, it can be especially difficult to meet up regularly. Business leaders can encourage peer mentors to share and connect via social media (perhaps even creating special Facebook groups for peer mentorship programs) or even utilize virtual meeting technology, like Google Hangouts, for more “face” time.  

Encouraging the exchange of information and service through mentorship can do wonders for workplace culture. When employees, both new and old, feel supported in sharpening their skills, engagement grows.  To learn more about how business leaders can foster a culture of success, get in touch for information about Applied Vision Works’ Culture Connection program.

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