I recently attended a presentation by a colleague of mine. I would guess her to be in her early- to mid-fifties. Her presentation was on using technology to market IT services. She impressed me with her up-to-date knowledge on things like QR codes and smartphone apps. After her presentation, I asked her how she became so knowledgeable. She surprised me by saying that she was being mentored by a new hire to the marketing team – a recent grad with only a few years of marketing experience. Although it was originally intended for her to be the mentor, they ended up mentoring each other.

This conversation got me thinking. Are organizations, particularly in IT, missing an opportunity here? The younger generation just entering the workforce has a unique familiarity with technology. They have never known a world that didn’t have mobile phones, the Internet, and so many other technologies that we still perceive as “new”. Meanwhile, baby boomers who have worked in IT all of their lives, have trouble facing the reality that they aren’t as up to date as their younger co-workers.

While the more seasoned business people coach the younger generation on how to handle various workplace scenarios, the younger generation can coach back and show baby boomers how the latest social, mobile and cloud technologies can be leveraged in the business world. The benefits of reverse mentoring (or multi-generational mentoring) can lead to a more productive and knowledgeable workforce, better leadership development of young workers, more respect between generations, and earlier identification of high-potential employees.

While the benefits are attractive, enabling millennials to mentor older workers can take some work. Baby boomers are used to running the organization and calling the shots. They may need to be coached to question their own assumptions and consider alternative ways of thinking to allow younger coworkers to teach them. Each generation enters the mentoring relationship with its own biases and assumptions. Additionally, explaining new and complex technologies to a baby boomer with little exposure takes persistence and understanding.

How do you get started and begin to support the effort? Here are five highly effective ways to encourage younger employees to step up as mentors:

  1. Start with the right attitude. Baby boomers should not summarily dismiss Millennials as too inexperienced and therefore unable to teach anything. The younger generation should also not dismiss baby boomers as out of touch.

  2. Sell the idea to your employees rather than mandating it. If experienced workers believe in the benefits of multi-generational mentoring, they are more likely to commit themselves to such a program, resulting in greater success. This requires the organization to sell them on the idea to obtain their agreement rather than mandating their involvement in the program.

  3. Don’t call it mentoring. People often get caught up in terminology. If a majority of your staff insists that mentoring is for more experienced people to teach to the younger generation, change the lingo. Call it knowledge sharing, knowledge exchange or something else that makes it feel more acceptable to all participants.

  4. Start simple. Any mentoring program can be established informally. At Geneca, we have frequent “lunch‘n learn” sessions. Any employee is free to come up with a topic in which he or she thinks other coworkers will have an interest. We’ve had people in the first couple years of their career teach seasoned employees about new programming languages and techniques.

  5. Pilot the system. If you anticipate difficulty getting buy-in or even participation, perhaps it would work to start out with a pilot of the system. Identify one boomer and one millennial who are open to the idea and allow them to be ambassadors of the program. Once other people see it work, they may be more inclined to participate.

A lot is written today about Millennials regarding how to integrate them into the workplace. Perhaps the best answer is to listen to them. It can be to everyone’s benefit to utilizing the unique knowledge and experience that this generation brings to the business world.

To continue the conversation, contact us.

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