Reciprocal Mentoring With Millennials

Portrait of three businesspeople sitting near laptop and discussing working ideas in the office

This is not a forum for true confessions, but I have nowhere else to turn.  After months of anxious observation, I am finally admitting that I have never witnessed, over my long career, such a wide ability gap favoring the youngest people in the office relative to the senior members of my company in an area of great importance.  If it were beer pong, I wouldn’t mind, but this skill applies to a sneakily expanding workplace asset — social media.

The Millennial generation, defined as those born between 1980 and 2000, lives and breathes technology.  They are indigenous to the landscape created by the internet, or “indigitals,” as I call them, for short.  In financial terms, the Millenials who populate the lower ranks of corporate and institutions, represent an untapped resource.  The question I faced was how to unlock that potential.

In 1999, Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, embraced a concept called ‘reverse mentoring,” where junior employees, with their deeper understanding of technology, were paired with senior management, who learned from their younger partners.  Several Fortune 500 companies have championed reverse mentoring over the years.  However, the word “reverse” implies that the knowledge exchange is moving in one direction, from lower to higher management or from young to old.  I believe that a better process and definition would be “reciprocal mentoring.”

What exactly does reciprocal mentoring mean and how does it work?  As the name suggests, it involves guidance and the transfer of knowledge bilaterally within organizations.  We’ve established the advanced skill set of Millennials; they perceive social media in their sleep: in fact it seems that most of them sleep with their cell phone within a foot of their reach.  I, on the other hand, may be a technologically challenged, middle aged CEO, desperately seeking digital savvy, but I, presumably have some useful tools for my side of the equation, including a strategy, goals, and management experience.  As my young colleagues guide me through the Facebook-for-Idiots manual, I try to point their know-how in the direction that will benefit our company.

We have clients who use social media religiously, and we should be part of their regular diet.  How do we do that?  We have a corporate website on which we post articles we write or find insightful, but, honestly, very few people read them.  My goal is to understand what type of digital presence will engage the Millennials we serve and perhaps also attract other young clients.  Managers developing content for Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn need to identify the correct audience, assume the appropriate voice and articulate the right message that will gain attention.  There is nothing better than asking some bona fide members of that generation for their input on these issues.  They have a wealth of ideas, but they need the direction that seasoned management can supply.

Fortunately, Millennials like guidance.  As Hershatter and Epstein noted in their excellent paper about Millennials, this generation expects constant feedback, mostly positive, having been raised in a child-centric and inclusive era vastly different from their parents, the Baby Boomers.   Therefore, they are comfortable with a reciprocal mentoring relationship in which they share their accumulated knowledge and teach a much older student.  However, despite having enormous self confidence in answering data-seeking questions, Millennials generally have limited experience working independently.  Therefore, they need and anticipate help from the top.   Lucky for them — I have plenty of experience and no inhibitions about offering my opinions and suggestions, about which my colleagues and children would definitely agree.  My impression is that the more our Millennials teach me, the more social media I can navigate on my own and the more I lead, the more comfortable they are in offering suggestions and taking initiatives.

Millennials do more than consume information:  they respond, exchange, resend, recommend, share, and complain.   A study conducted by The Hartford insurance group describes how one quarter of the search results related to the 20 largest worldwide brands contain links to user-created content such as reviews and demonstrations.   Millennials have embraced this communal critique system as their civic responsibility, seeking and offering opinions with great relish.

Therefore, when I talk to our Millennials about how we should use social media as a business asset, we need to understand that it’s not only about “pushing”  worthwhile content to them, but also about “pulling” in a lively but positive exchange.  In our business, the old motto of, “all publicity is good publicity” just doesn’t apply.
Almost as elemental to Millennial reciprocal mentoring as the original strategic goal, is the time senior members of management have invested in working closely with their youngest colleagues on projects that can be high profile.  Institutions and individuals benefit from expanding relationships beyond their comfort zones, as unusual groupings can result in unexpected and innovative ideas and outcomes.

In my own personal case, I have spent time with Millennials with whom I would have had less interaction; I can begin to understand their personal styles, responsiveness, ingenuity, and workplace skills.  Through this process, I see how they handle suggestions and direction.   They get to work with me, the CEO, on a high priority undertaking, perhaps, not a choice they might have made otherwise, and I get to assess the next generation of future executives.  As mentioned, Millennials are bred to critique, so I expect them to be honest in their own evaluation of my role in our social media effort.  To successfully attract young clients through social media is only half the equation; different generations working together on a team effort has its own lasting benefits.