5 Methods for Social Leadership: Try Reverse Mentoring

I’ve been thinking a lot about global leadership applications for social learning lately. I spend a portion of my time helping companies and leaders hire and retain the very best and most applicable talent based on personality and skill set so this is a topic on my mind literally on a weekly basis. I have run into a recurrent trending theme in the past few years – reverse mentoring. It’s no secret there are greater numbers of older workers in the workplace right now; many baby boomers have evaporated retirement funds due to the recession, which means fewer career positions for recent graduates.

Nevertheless, times are always changing in the world of work, new workers are entering the workplace with much different expectations for leaders and team culture. They may be less willing to play the game of climbing the corporate ladder and more convinced skipping rungs is the new norm as they navigate the management ranks. It’s inevitable that these generations will be in competition for jobs held by older workers, creating tension and potential workplace unhappiness. This is why I think the only antidote to this unavoidable outcome is mutual trust from leaders and employees alike.

You might be wondering: How do you build real trust in a workplace that is both social and multi-generational? Reverse mentoring is one way to do it while creating space to build enduring relationships that transcend age and pay grade.

Let’s be honest, if you’ve been in the workplace for more than a minute you’ve already been mentored, usually by an older worker but maybe even by someone younger than you are. Maybe it was your manager, or his or her manager, or a colleague from another department, but someone offered the lifeline of advice, informal training, support and cultural clues to help you thrive and survive in the organization. Is this YOU? These links are critical to individual development in a workplace culture where formal schooling and degrees give workers about five years’ worth of usable skills, say John Hagel, Co-chairman – Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge, and other people over at Harvard Business Review.

Time is a ticking at lightning social speed, and five years isn’t much time to build a career path, let alone pay off student loans. For older workers it may feel like a threat – if you earned your degree in 1982, how on earth can they expect you to keep up? The need to keep re-tooling skills underscores the value of mentoring, particularly bi-directional mentoring. Let’s look at how organizations can create a mentoring workplace culture which works both up and down the chain of relationships and leadership channels. Who knows, there may even be an argument for mentoring as an aid to reconcile older workers to the reality of being managed by younger, probably less experienced people.

The very best mentoring workplace cultures rely on a mix of formal, informal and social learning, explicit mentoring programs, support for cross-functional teams, and consistency in management treatment of the work population.

Here are 5 methods I suggest to build a workplace and leadership culture to support bi-directional “AKA” reverse mentoring:

  1. Create a management playbook for culture-building. Managers, especially in the HR side of the house, sometimes rely on employee handbooks and training as a way to transmit culture (and rules). Too often these programs don’t cover management’s responsibility to employees. Creating a healthy multi-generational culture requires consistent, transparent communications, clear expectations for managers, and creative programs to encourage learning and peaceful co-existence among employees of all ages. Valve gets a shout-out for its guide to company culture!
  1. Reward workplace flexibility. Leaders, don’t panic – I’m not saying have no rules – every community and group needs rules, but reward flexible thinking, which means being open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Flexible cultures provide lots of room for mentoring relationships to flourish and encourage a culture of learning that spans generations.
  1. Institute global mentoring programs that ignore age and rank. These can be based on skills, interests or, if you’re a really attentive manager and the organization is a still small, temperament or personality mesh with your colleagues. Assign mentoring teams to new employees so if personalities clash mentoring still continues. Make sure mentoring teams represent an age-and-skills cross section of the organization; you want to create an environment of cross-generational and skills trust and learning. And check in with employees on the effectiveness of the teams. Feedback is critical for your success. It’s almost worse to have unmonitored mentoring programs than no mentoring at all.
  1. Consider out-of-the-box job categories. There are many technology innovators and leaders that created a career path for those who opted out of management: members of technical staff tend to fit into this category. This is perfectly fine – not everyone is passionate about taking on a management role. As workers spend more time on the job their interests and focus will change; be prepared, not with a short-term plan and a not-so-gentle push, by creating job categories to keep experienced older workers engaged while allowing eager youngsters to rise through the ranks. These workers will be great mentors for the up-and-comers, by the way.
  1. Socialize mentoring, learning and workplace culture initiatives. You won’t be successful if you send an email simply telling people to be mentors, coaches or team-mates. Show you have a stake in the game: be part of a mentoring team. Be a coach. Live the role and others will see and feel this from your leadership.

Show you truly care about learning, informal, formal or social. Test these assumptions weekly and be ready to rewrite the playbook where it doesn’t hold up.

Leaders – Be The One. It Starts With You.

A version of this post was published on on 9/23/12

photo credit: Smell of fortune via photopin (license)