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The Simple Way to Build Intergenerational Relationships at Work

July 7, 2015 By Lindsey Pollak,

If there’s one issue on which all generations agree, it’s that millennials are masters of technology.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on millennials helping “befuddled” older employees with their tech troubles. Although I don’t love the thought of myself as “befuddled,” I did recently share in my newsletter how I enlisted a willing Millennial (my “Snapchat mentor”) to help me master the app’s quirks.

In my work with large corporations, I’ve often found that Gen Xers and baby boomers are reticent to ask millennials for help in the workplace. But I’ve found that reverse mentoring (also known as co-mentoring or reciprocal mentoring) is the most effective way for colleagues of different generations to successfully work together. The traditional “older is always wiser” model of business is over and the era of “leadership from every chair” has begun.

Reverse Mentoring Is as Old as, Well, Millennials

Jack Welch is widely considered the pioneer of “reverse mentoring.” When he was CEO of GE in the 1990s, he recognized the Internet was going to be game-changing, but he didn’t fully understand it. He found an entry-level employee to give him the scoop, and the rest is history.

If one of the most admired CEOs in history can be humble enough to accept advice from a junior employee, then anyone can.

Reverse Mentoring Isn’t Just About Teaching Tech

Millennials are excellent with tech, but they have other skills and knowledge to impart to their older colleagues, too. This includes information on what makes them tick, how to engage them at work and how to sell to them.

I consult for The Hartford, and we have a standing rule that you can’t have a meeting to talk about millennials without having one present. Even if your company doesn’t have a full-on program for tapping millennials’ knowledge, that’s a simple practice any organization can adopt — and one that will help you learn a lot.

But maybe your company needs to go beyond just having millennials in the room. I work with a global consumer products company whose top executives each have a millennial mentor. They will go shopping together so the upper-level executive can see how millennials shop for products in their category. I absolutely love this strategy. What better way to figure out how to really reach young people than to watch exactly how they make purchasing decisions?

Redefining ‘Mentor’

I challenge you and your organization to disrupt the notion of a mentor as someone with years more experience than a mentee. All a mentor needs to be is someone with different experience — someone younger, of a different gender or with a different background. The goal of reverse mentoring is to look at your work through a lens that’s different from your own.

So, if you’re a Gen Xer or baby boomer, seek out a millennial and ask that person what his or her favorite app or work hack is.

If you’re a millennial, be open to the questions people from other generations ask you — don’t succumb to the eye roll. And another little etiquette point: It’s best not to walk up to someone and offer unsolicited advice. Wait for them to ask for help; or if you’re in a meeting, ask if the group would like another perspective.

I guarantee that through reverse mentoring everyone will learn something useful, and I’d love to hear what it is! Please share in the comments.

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