How bad is the good idea of juniors mentoring seniors

Digital natives mentoring Gen X, or better, Baby-Boomers. What can go wrong?

For some years now, the practice of “reverse mentoring” – digital natives / juniors mentoring seniors – has been deployed in some large corporations with the aim to get senior employees and managers up to speed with the digital age. The term reverse mentoring has been created to distinguish itself from the traditional view of mentoring: more senior employees, hence more experienced in corporate culture, guiding the younger generation.

The trigger for reverse mentoring was the combination of simple demographics and technological revolution. The “digital natives” have more experience or let’s say usage of digital tools, and social perspective of them than their seniors. This differential makes them potential mentors for seniors who may have lagged in the appropriation and understanding of the new social trend.

Reverse Mentoring as an Illusion?

The problem is that these initiatives are often taken as a punctual practice, with minimum resources associated,  to try to solve a much bigger cultural issue. Moving into the digital age or helping a company through a digital transformation is not about answering the question “how do we get senior employees to master the new digital tools?” Unfortunately this is often the question they are trying to answer with juniors mentoring seniors  and the consequences are :

1. A tool-focused tutoring programme instead of mentoring to enable transition in thinking

Indeed, through lack of understanding of what a mentoring culture truly is, junior mentors tend to take a teacher’s posture, transferring know-hows about the new digital tools. This is particularly true when the organisation is structuring the mentoring programme too heavily with objectives and measurable KPIs such as: “being able to use LinkedIn”, “have and maintain a twitter account” or “write a blog regularly”.  In such a case, it would be more appropriate to call this initiative a training or tutoring programme, as the mentor is transferring know-how rather than sharing experience and perspective.

Mentoring is an offline help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work, or thinking. Clutterbuck & Meggison 1999.

 A reverse mentoring programme, to really support a digital transformation of the business, needs to enable a shift in mindset, way of thinking about society, markets, lifestyle and way of working, it is not confined to the understanding and use of new tools.

2. Self-serving informal networks instead of  true cultural transformation of work relationships

When not properly framed, mentoring programmes can quickly lose the values they are supposed to carry, and the risk is even higher with reverse mentoring. The young mentors may be motivated to enter the programme for their own benefit, such as accessing the top level management, and not for the altruistic motivations of helping others, and contributing to the success of the company in a different way than the usual job performance. The senior mentees may be taking advantage of their hierarchical positions and have the junior mentors be their personal digital helpline. This would go against the two key notions about mentoring: the mentees should become autonomous and the mentoring relationship is unbiased and not self-serving.

The mentoring culture that can support a digital transformation is based on experience, perspectives and knowledge sharing between generations, through the natural building of trust. The creation and reinforcement of the informal networks hence created throughout the company are key to knowledge management, strategic agility and eventually innovation.

3. A techno-push of already obsolete knowledge instead of an engagement-pull towards evolving wisdom

The senior mentees may be pushed into the programme because of their age or lack of understanding of the digital age creating less favourable conditions for learning and development. Mentoring is a voluntary activity for both mentors and mentees. Forcing seniors to learn new tools doesn’t mean they will gain wisdom or insights into what is going on in society or their markets. How can knowing how to use LinkedIn help a senior manager be a better strategist in his business unit launching into a new market?

The mentoring relationship is hence defined, on the basis of reciprocity, as a support relationship between an experienced person who shares knowledge, experience, ideas and understanding of an organisation with a less experienced one, willing to benefit from this sharing. Paul, 2004 

Also, the junior mentor, being a native, may not have enough distance with or have a deep enough understanding of the digital practices (not just the tools) to be able to share or transfer wisdom about them onto others. Being born a fish doesn’t mean I can explain the ocean. I have seen very good mentors for digital transformation who were not “digital natives”: it is the experience of going through the transition themselves that makes them good at guiding the transition of others.

Acceleration Is the Real Issue

The real question here is “how do we change the company culture so that we are able to stir our company – from strategic decisions about markets to operational concerns about knowledge management, community building and competencies agility – and be successful in our fast-evolving markets?”

macaques group

A company culture will evolve with time through the natural regeneration of the population, but what companies are really looking for is an acceleration of that cultural evolution. Mentoring can indeed be an accelerator because it creates informal networks (cross-functions, generations and nations), facilitates the sharing of best practices, enriches perspectives and eventually stimulates innovation. But there is a price for speed. A price that companies think they can get away with because “mentoring is free as we do it internally”.

This is the price for speed:

  • Take the time to decide if and why mentoring is aligned and timely with your transformation strategy; to engage employees at all levels and have top management sponsorship; to let the mentoring culture establish itself (usually 3 years for large corporations) and do not expect a “quick win” that would probably be a superficial change.
  • Invest in guidance to design a programme that suits your transformation strategy and company culture; training mentors and mentees to avoid the dysfunctions; a dedicated (or at least recognised) internal coordination team to support and energise the early steps of the mentoring culture.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.

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