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Reverse Mentoring - Leveraging the skills of Gen Z's for your digital growth

When I was in college, and later in my career, I always had mentors who are seniors to me and have already traveled the path I aspired to travel. I owe a lot to these mentors for my success at various stages of my career. We have all heard a lot about mentoring and the impact of a good mentor in our lives. The oxford dictionary defines a mentor as “an experienced person who advises and helps somebody with less experience over a period of time.” Most of the time, the mentors we chose are people we admire for their experience in a field or their accomplishment in a particular area of our interest. So what is reverse mentoring, and why do we need it? For the uninitiated, let me first define what reverse mentoring is.

Reverse mentoring is a practice (often in a professional work environment) of matching a junior employee, as the mentor, with a senior executive as the mentee to give the senior executive a one-one understanding of a particular issue, such as diversity, generational difference, or leveraging new-age technology.

If you are born in the 1970s or 80s, we all have experience teaching our parents or elderly relatives using smartphones and apps like WhatsApp, PayTm, Google Pay, etc. There also could be scenarios where you learned from your kid about playing a new game or the latest collaboration app. These are examples of reverse mentoring where you act as a mentor to your parents in things they are not familiar with or a mentee learning from someone younger than you like your kid. Reverse mentoring is not new and has been in some form and shape from the early years. This becoming more relevant because of the Digital Transformation across industries. The term reverse mentoring was popularized by Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, in 1999 when he paired 500 senior and junior employees as a pilot project in hopes the latter would teach the former about technological advances and tools. In the years since, many global companies have developed their own reverse mentoring programs.

Reverse mentoring is more relevant today because of the advancement and rapid change in digital technology and tools that can make even the high-performing executives struggling to stay relevant. The other reason is the rise of the Generation Z population (represents those born after 1996). They are called the Digital Native population as they grew up when the Internet is already mainstream. According to a 2019 Bloomberg report, Gen Z made up 32 percent of the global population, with India’s Gen Z population at 472 million and United States Gen Z population is 90 million. So not in the distant future, Gen Zs will become key stakeholders as an employee and as a consumer. For the Millennials and GenX population who came before them, it is essential to understand and learn from this Generation Z if we need to stay relevant and drive Digital transformation both at work and personal lives.

“For most of human history, the tools of creative production were in relatively few hands. The digital revolution has put sophisticated tools within reach of almost everyone. But even the most accessible of them are worthless without the ideas and expertise of those who use them. “— Sir Ken Robinson

There is so much to learn from the Digital Native generation, from the latest digital technologies to new social media tools for communication and collaboration. This is one of the reasons reverse mentoring is being advocated as a key upskilling medium for senior executives as part of their digital transformation journey. Over the years, many of my learnings at work has come from my interaction with junior members of my team and campus hires.

“As digital natives, younger employees can push senior leaders to leverage emerging technology skills and help shift their thinking on how to incorporate these technologies. Diverse perspectives working together can lead to innovative solutions to old problems” — Deloitte 2019 Insights article

While each organization will have its own policies and objectives for a reverse mentoring relationship, the purpose of this article is to share my views based on my personal experience on how to leverage the power of reverse mentoring for personal growth and transformation.

1. Be Curious

“I have no special Talent. I am only passionately Curious “
— Albert Einstein

Be it mentoring or reverse mentoring, you as a mentee must develop intellectual curiosity. Curiosity can be defined as the recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore novel, challenging and uncertain events. We need to develop this basic skill to be ready and learn from others irrespective of their age and experience. Curiosity is not a trait that we are born with but a skill that can be developed. Learning from Gen Z can be as simple as asking the right questions when you interact with this generation and use google search for answers and read the numerous articles and user-created videos available abundantly on platforms like Youtube. Similar to binge-watching and binge-reading, you can develop the habit of binge-searching to improve your curiosity.

2. Observe how the kids are using technology to solve their problems

“We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach”
— Gloria Steinem

If you really want to understand how Digitally native the current generation of kids are, you don’t have to look further than your own kids on how they adapted to the pandemic situation. They have not only learned new learning tools as Zoom and Google meet, but they have also found new ways to use technology to communicate and collaborate with their friends. They didn't go through any learning sessions on using these tools, which comes naturally to them. Not only in their use of technology, but there is also so much to learn from how they play and learn new things. For example, I believed that all video games are detrimental to kids compared to toys like Lego blocks. But I learned from my son & his friends about the different types of video games. There is something called Sandbox games (Example: Minecraft) which actually increases Kids' creativity and gives them the freedom to build new things in a virtual world similar to Lego Blocks. Be open and curious enough to observe how the kids use technology in their daily lives, and you will gain a lot.

3. Be a mentor

“If you want great mentors, you have to become a great mentee. If you have to lead you have to first learn to follow”
— Tim Ferriss

This might sound counter-intuitive to reverse mentoring. But in workplaces where there is no formal reverse mentoring platform, the best way to learn from the next generation of employees is to mentor the campus hires joining your organization. This is one area where I have learned a lot and understood the dynamics of managing and working with Gen Z employees. Also, even if there is no formal mentoring relationship, an effective practice would be to engage with these employees in an informal setting and get their inputs and feedback on the ways of working and the tools used in the organization. This gives a lot of insights into your own knowledge gap and gap in the process and tools of the organization.

4. Develop Learning Agility

“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
— Alvin Toffler, Futurist

Learning Agility is defined by your ability to unlearn old things, relearn new things, and keep yourself continuously learning. No amount of mentoring or training can be effective if you are unwilling to let go of your past learnings and relearn new things. This is especially true in learning from someone younger, as it will often involve challenging your own beliefs and assumptions. The example I quoted earlier about the learning I had about Sandbox games is a good example of the need for unlearning. If I were unwilling to unlearn my previous learnings about video games, I would have continued to be oblivious to the latest progress being made in the Digital gaming world. I also learned the hard way that sending out detailed email communications to newly hired campus recruits is not as effective as communicating with them through the company’s internal social media app like Yammer or chatting with them in a collaboration platform like Microsoft Teams. They are the Digital Native population who are more comfortable with using synchronous communication tools similar to WhatsApp and Skype rather than asynchronous communication tools like emails. So I need to unlearn the old ways of communication and learn new ways to collaborate with Gen Zs. Be aware of areas where your inability to unlearn and relearn is impacting your growth. As the digital economy evolves, we will be faced with many scenarios and past life experiences that we need to unlearn and relearn new things.

5. Leverage the power of the Internet and Social Media

“We don’t have a choice on whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it.”
— Erik Qualman

There is no greater tool now than the Internet and various Social media platforms like Twitter, Youtube, and blog posts as a Reverse mentoring platform for our self-growth. The current Digitally native generation is more comfortable sharing their daily lives on social media, including their journey of daily productivity improvement, career building, and lessons learned through failures. This gives an opportunity for Gen X and even the millennials to learn a lot from this generation. Like anything on Internet, you need to be selective in whom you follow and learn. For example, through these social media creators, I learned a lot about improving daily productivity habits through the latest app ecosystem, effectively reading and creating a second brain through tools like Notion and Evernote, and using social media apps to make new connections, etc. These are things that I cannot learn easily by only connecting with my peers or my seniors. Many of these youngsters don’t let their college education or lack of college education determine how they pivot in life and what it takes to follow their passion and be successful. Some of the best social media influencers in India and globally are Doctors and Engineers who followed their passion for success in the creator economy. Many of the NextGen startup founders use platforms like Twitter effectively to share their learnings in their startup journey. There is no better way to be on the leading edge of what’s happening in the technology and startup ecosystem than being on social media.

The 2015 Hollywood movie, The Intern, portrayed the cross-generational mentor-mentee relationship very well. This movie, about a 30+ years old startup founder and a 70+ years old intern, shows the power of learning from each other irrespective of the age difference. The Senior Intern learns about the power of technology and social media, and the founder gains the experience of running a company and relationships from the Intern. Similarly, effective reverse mentoring can lead to mutual benefit and growth of both the mentor and mentee.

What is your experience with reverse mentoring? What are the things that you look up to your next generation for learning new things? Are there any other traits that are very important to learn from the Gen Zs? Please feel free to share your stories and comments.

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