In traditional mentoring, a seasoned executive might counsel a young up-and-comer about career development or leadership. However, a growing phenomenon called reverse mentoring (or reciprocal mentoring) gives entry-level, often tech-savvy employees the chance to school senior executives about business interests, such as trends in social media, consumer culture and unconventional methods to boost office morale.
Take Bud Kulesza and Tashee Singleton. The two met through the traditional mentorship program at the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) in 2009, when Singleton was seeking professional development opportunities and Kulesza was looking for ways to mold new leaders. Since then, their relationship has evolved into one that thrives on reverse mentoring.
"Tashee opened my eyes to things that I didn't see because of the generational difference," says Kulesza, a retired CFO now doing consulting work. Case in point: Singleton enlightened Kulesza about an adult "play date," a church event where young people meet informally and play games. Singleton suggested applying some of those concepts to attract young professionals to IMA meetings.
"My definition of fun, which might be going to a one-hour [continuing professional education] class and having some cocktails with friends, was very different and wasn't overly attractive to a millennial," says Kulesza. Enticed to try something new, he used Singleton's play-date approach to plan an informal meeting for members of his local IMA chapter in Texas to bond with one another.
Of course, reverse mentoring is rarely one-sided. Thanks to Kulesza and his decades of management experience, Singleton says she learned how to "handle people instead of jumping in and having a comment—how to hold back and let the conversation evolve; those points you don't [learn] in school."
As companies work to retain eager millennials and keep baby-boomer executives technologically and socially relevant, a growing number have created formal or informal reverse mentoring programs, including Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric.
Tony Lamb, CEO and president of Kona Ice, which has more than 220 individual franchisees of its tropical shave ice trucks, says he hires "the best and brightest of the twentysomething crowd" to educate franchisees—most of them in their 40s, 50s or 60s—about social media and online marketing. These young, creative professionals lead breakout sessions at the company's annual convention and share tips through video tutorials.
Lamb believes having younger employees train franchisees improves the brand's online presence, while stressing the importance of having a liaison between the two camps. "Someone has to assume that role because things can get adversarial quickly if there isn't someone to mediate," he says. "I've adopted that role here, so that everyone can see the benefit of this technology."
In addition to training on the latest social media platforms, reverse mentoring gives executives more candid feedback than the highly-filtered intel they normally get, says Andrew Satter, founder and CEO of a New York-based executive coaching company. "Sometimes a younger and more junior person hasn't learned what they can't say," he says. "[They have] fresh eyes and fresh ears and a fresh tongue. They will say and share things because they haven't swallowed the Kool-Aid yet."
Experts say mentoring relationships thrive on trust, respect and candor—but, of course, too much candor can backfire if young employees cross the lines of professionalism. "A junior person can absolutely take it too far," says Satter. "Both parties need to have a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. It's critical for me to be able to gauge what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. Am I going far enough? Am I going too far?"