The Evolution Of Mentoring

With technology developing more rapidly than ever before, some organisations are turning to a surprising source of knowledge for up-to-date training, writes Delia du Toit.

Every parent knows that when you need help with something tech-related, you ask your child. Reverse mentoring applies this same principle in the business world, giving younger generations the opportunity to mentor their seniors on technology or social issues.

When done right, it’s a smart, cost-effective way to keep older generations looped in on current trends, while giving younger employees an opportunity to learn other skills in return.

Though it is still in its infancy in South Africa, with only some large corporates embracing the idea, this peer-to-peer coaching concept is not new. Here’s what you can learn from organisations that have done their time in the trenches.

Benefits And Challenges 

Kerstin Jatho, positive psychology practitioner and founder of Johannesburg-based leadership consultancy 4Seeds, says while reverse mentoring focuses on skills transfer from young employees to senior management, it offers benefits for both parties. “It affords junior employees access to a network they would otherwise not be able to enter while increasing employee engagement and breaking down cultural and racial barriers. At an organisation-wide level, it’s a cost-effective way to nurture and retain talent while increasing respect, tolerance and performance across departments.”

Dr Elsbeth Dixon, CEO of the South African division of Common Purpose, a global leadership development organisation, agrees that this is one of the biggest benefits the concept offers in the South African context. “Across any axis of difference, but particularly across the generational one, both sides have much to learn from each other and deep reciprocal mentoring helps each party to appreciate the other’s core beliefs. Diverse teams are infinitely more innovative because their members spot more angles and challenge each other’s ideas.”

If not done right, reverse mentoring’s biggest benefit could be its major flaw: crossing generational boundaries is as nuanced, multifaceted and challenging as crossing any cultural divide.

That’s why training is an essential step in the process, says Kerstin. “Mentors and mentees need to undergo training so that everyone is clear on the process, their roles and expectations. Reverse mentoring should never be a patronising process based on hierarchy, age or seniority. It also needs to be a voluntary process, and it must be made clear from the onset that mentoring is aimed at growing and supporting a person and is not a remedial process for poor performance.”

Getting It Right

Bowmans law firm launched a reversed mentoring programme last year, where senior leaders were given the opportunity to be mentored by female senior associates of the millennial generation.

Lee-Ann Greyling, group organisational development and learning manager, says the uptake was phenomenal. “At first, we held chemistry sessions to determine good mentor/mentee pairings and scripted some of the desired topics and outcomes such as tech, social media and current trends. But it has many more benefits for both parties, allowing young people to find their voice and to practise their ability to influence within a safe space, while leadership can glean insights into younger employees’ perspectives.”

Kate Baretta, a senior associate in the programme, says while she was the mentor, she also learned a lot from her mentee. “I tried to provide insight into the younger generation’s perspective and reactions, but also learned from the older generation’s ways, such as the value of building relationships outside of electronic communications. I think the most important aspect of such a programme is complete honesty.”

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