Mentors have strong and respected place in the world of work. In fact, that role is growing in importance.
Usually, older and more experience, mentors provide coaching and serve as role models for neophytes who turn to them for advice on how to build and manage careers. This role is important to the success of individuals and organizations.
Mentoring is taking on a new dimension as increasingly younger careerists are performing that vital service for their older bosses and associates.
It's been called "reverse mentoring."
This new mode of mentoring has been brought about by the technology spawned by computers and the Internet.
Older workers are usually lost balls in tall weeds when it comes to understanding the potential benefits of cyber technology and how to realize them. On the other hand, younger people, the so-called twentysomethings, who have grown up with computers and the Internet, are comfortable and adept at the tools of technology. They have also developed new attitudes that are changing the environment of work.
This emerging of reverse mentoring is not without some sobering and painful adjustments on both sides. Who hasn't had the un-nerving experience of a youngster school age solving in a flash a cyber challenge, which has been baffling an elder for days?
In the past, reverse mentoring relationships have evolved informally. A survey by Work-life Policy shows that four out of ten senior executives have asked younger associates for assistance with text messaging, social networking and using iTunes.
Reverse mentoring a growing trend
More and more companies are formalizing reverse mentoring programs by assigning younger people to act as technology guides.
The Edelman public relations firm is a good example of this trend. The agency has named its program Rotnem (mentor spelled backwards) and gone worldwide with it. About 95 percent of the senior executives in its Chicago office are working with assigned Rotnems.
Usually those who have experienced tech mentoring find that learning how-to-do-it, though often difficult, is only half the game. The rest of the equation -- understanding the protocol and learning the appropriate way to employ it so that it benefits the organization--is equally challenging.
It takes some doing -- and a healthy ego -- for senior executives to get comfortable being taught by a younger person.
"You feel stupid," says Janet Cabot, president of Edelman's central region. "...you get to a certain age and you don't want to feel stupid."
Those organizations that have instituted reverse mentoring program often find that the benefits go beyond improved use of technology. Chief among these is the breaking down of the rigid lines of corporate hierarchies. Inevitably, younger mentors and their pupils are exposed to each other's knowledge and experience.
While benefiting from informed guidance on how to use technology, seniors are gaining insight in to what makes their younger associates tick and how to manage them.
"Even though I learned about the networking, what I really learned...it is important to understand what Rotnems think and how they spend their time," says Kathy Krenger, 42, an executive at Edelmen.
"The mentoring, the sharing diverse perspectives of an older generation versus a younger generation that produces a lot of magic. It breeds innovative thought," declares Raphael Viton, president of an innovation agency in suburban Chicago.
Seniors get a chance to spot and evaluate new talent.
At the same time, young people gain exposure to senior executives which carries with it opportunities to learn from them, not only what to do, but also how to get things done.
This exposure includes two other opportunities for young mentors. One, they have a chance to show their capabilities and their work ethic. Second, they can introduce new technologies and strategy that can benefit their employer and by extension themselves.
Reverse mentoring can come from the top down in organizations that want to full advantage of the sweeping changes that taking place in workplace technology. Or it can occur when younger staffers step forward to volunteer their expertise.
It's clear. Either way, all parties -- employer, senior executives and younger associates -- benefit when reverse mentoring takes place.
To get more common sense career advice on how to protect and advance your career during tough times, sign up at http://www.commonsenseatwork.com for a free subscription to Ramon Greenwood's widely read e-newsletter and participate in his blog. He coaches from a successful career as Senior VP at American Express, author of career-related books, and a senior executive/consultant in Fortune 500 companies.
© 2009 Ramon Greenwood
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