Volume 79 | Issue 1
January 2011

Executive Director's Column: A call for reverse mentoring

Marsha Herman-Betzen

There is no question that in my 30-year professional career, being a mentor to several students and staff has been my greatest joy. The pride taken in their collective accomplishments keeps me going when the problems of the day seem insurmountable. The large piece of real estate they inhabit in my heart is not for sale. Night and weekend building managers, set-up crew, graduate interns, and young staff members are now union directors, deans of students, or vice presidents of student affairs. Two of my former graduate interns are now faculty members, and one has already published two books. Two mentees have become association executives, and several former students are MBAs who have climbed the corporate ladder in record time. I cannot help but be humbled by the small part I have played in their lives and the huge portion they continue to play in mine.

I am sure this sentiment resonates with most of you, as does the similar story of you being mentored by someone special. Wherever you are in your journey, college unions and student activities continue to be laboratories for providing these kinds of extraordinary opportunities. If you were mentored, begin 2011 by taking your turn to pay it forward. Give your time and expertise to someone who might be looking for exactly what you have to offer, someone just like me.

Now I am well aware of the fact that the word “mentor” usually brings to mind the gray-haired, bifocal-wearing, seasoned professional who has identified a glimmer of raw talent in a young whippersnapper, much to the delight of both. But what if it were reversed? What if that bright-eyed rock star was willing to coach that senior executive, helping her acquire a skill set needed to remain current and successful? This concept is referred to as reverse mentoring and while it has been around for some time, I am not sure it is being practiced in most organizations. The notion is attributed to Jack Welch former CEO of GE who used reverse mentoring to learn about technology.

 It works like this. You pair a younger staff member who uses Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites with a senior leader who still uses the telephone (circa 1876) or writes letters on a yellow pad and gives them to his secretary to type. The Generation Y whiz-kids can impart their knowledge of LinkedIn and Ning, teach the art of writing a blog, or purport the use of YouTube to market a union program. Likewise, the boomer union directors can serve as role models advising junior staff on their up-and-coming careers while relaying helpful hints from a corner-office perspective.
But reverse mentoring has far more potential than having the young show the old how to use the latest technology. It is about sharing knowledge between the generations in a nonthreatening win-win way. “The beauty of reverse mentorship is that it takes both sides into account, realizing that we all come with our flaws whether we’re 22 years old and fresh out of college or 60 years old, steering a business,” Erica Swallow wrote in her Mashable post “Why Your Business Should Consider Reverse Mentorship.” “Furthermore, we must remember that each new generation is not a new subset of humans—we are all people, and we all share commonalities. The sooner we acknowledge our similarities along with our differences, the sooner we can begin to learn from each other and bridge the so-called generation gap.”

In December, I attended the Women’s Leadership Institute where there was a divide the size of the Grand Canyon along generational lines between those who were using Twitter to connect with a community and those who were not. For some of the non-tweeters there was envy, for some embarrassment, for some disdain, and for a few a real longing to learn something new. Today’s world does not allow us to ignore social networking just because it comes to us from the younger generation. Findings from a 2004 AARP survey revealed that 79 percent of boomers plan to work in some capacity during their retirement years. More recently, a 2008 AARP survey reported that 27 percent of workers aged 45 and older said the economic slowdown had caused them to delay their retirement plans. Simply put, none of us in today’s workplace have the luxury of coasting.

Finally, reverse mentoring can help retain millennials. According to Career Vision, “Millennials understand and are proficient at leveraging technology to be more productive and effective.” And as a boomer, I can certainly use a crash course on how to use social media to be more dynamic, relevant, and downright cool.

Is there any millennial out there who would be interested in being my mentor? I promise I will return the favor.