Reverse Mentorships Make Perfect Sense

Me at about 20 years old, looking back over my shoulder from the oldest radio control room most people have ever seen - in Red Deer, Alberta.

Memories of my early days in radio are a bit like a game of whack-a-mole. One vivid recollection will pop up and then, months later, that one will have been “whacked” and something else will emerge. I attribute this to a combination of heavy beer drinking back then, and those days being so darn long ago.

As a young and inexperienced media person, I took note of how some of my older colleagues treated us. Like the rooster from Looney Tunes, Foghorn Leghorn: “Get away from me, kid, ya bother me!” There were few women in broadcasting to serve as mentors, at least, not for my first few years. And those rare women had one eye on their backs because females were encouraged to think of each other as competition, not teammates. But that’s a story for another day.

You quickly learned which older guy would answer a question and who you should avoid. The photo up top is from my first full-time radio job, Red Deer, AB, about 1982, when a lot of this learning was taking place. About 1 out of every 10 “older guys” was willing to lend an ear or some advice.

Very few would take a newbie under their wing. They’d expect new hires to somehow magically match their own level of expertise. Mistakes were fatal. Gaining respect was almost impossible. One veteran journalist used to refer to interns as “things”, as in Thing One, Thing Two, and so on. “What’s the point of learning their names?”, he’d say.

Making mistakes is what Internships and early career years are for. Get them out of your system. Learn and move on, wiser, more confident.

Younger colleagues definitely feel this disrespect. Deeply. It’s a huge contributor to workplace generation gaps. I hope it’s gotten better. I think it has. After all, these are the people who will take the baton from you. It serves the industry you’re in to treat them well.

The Fountain of Youth

I’ve found that when I keep my eyes and mind open, I learn as much from younger colleagues as they say they learn from me. It’s a mentorship flipped on its head. And it’s something I’ve been doing, informally, for years. I can’t honestly say I’ve picked up anything I didn’t know from an intern, but definitely from someone considered my junior. Anyone with a teenager in the house knows this phenomenon. There are certain things you just know they can do better or faster than you.

Avery Moore (Blackburn radio) changed my life by showing me the PC Snipping tool a decade ago. Would I still be taking unwieldy screenshots that needed editing if she hadn’t? I remember that moment clearly. And I know I learned many more things from her. And how would I know that describing something as “really clutch” means it’s really good, if not for younger associates?

I’ve never believed that I know it all. In fact, the older I grow, the less I know for certain. I don’t mind being asked, but I you’ll find that I rarely give firm advice. I tend to present a few options and end with, “trust your gut instinct”. That’s partly because I don’t want the responsibility, but it’s mostly because I genuinely believe the best source for the answer is the person themselves. They just need a little confidence-building.

I’m immensely proud of younger people who walk away when a work situation is unreasonable. They’re prioritizing mental health and boundaries in ways that my generation mostly did not. They’re smarter. The sun is setting on the days of being owned by your boss. There’s more to life. So much more.

Pair Newbies with Senior Staff

Reverse mentorship, learning from younger colleagues, isn’t new. It’s been around since the 1990s. But it took on new life during the pandemic. You’re working from home, navigating new technology or even checking your terminology so you don’t accidentally put the wrong words out in public and get cancelled. Younger folk will eventually discover that it’s not so easy to change verbiage you’ve relied on for decades. Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake! So, who can you reach out to for help? Your millennial or Gen Z colleague for whom this stuff is second nature.

Formal programs for reverse mentoring are an even better idea. Younger workers want to be heard. They have information that we don’t. So, while we’re showing them the ropes, they can show us whatever is hot and relevant to the work. Letting them in helps create a culture they want to stay with. They’ll express expectations for diversity and flexibility and keep the organization from entrenching itself in same-old behavior.

For this concept to work, millennials and Gen Zs also need to overcome their stereotypes of Boomers. We’re probably going to part company over music and movies, but that doesn’t make us irrelevant or them dumb. And it’s abundantly clear that we have a lot to offer each other.

6 thoughts on “Reverse Mentorships Make Perfect Sense”

  1. For many years I use to look forward to going to do groceries for I was always assisted by a young person either in high school or post secondary and it gave me an opportunity to tap into their culture while also allowing me to share insights into some challenge or dilemma they were facing. Each year when the corporations outdoor pool opens I’ve always made time to get to know our life guards and engage in conversation with them about school, what’s happening in the news all while sharing each other prospective and this is what I’ve loved most about these in person experiences which are not possible online.

  2. Another excellent post. This is why I teach — in any given semester, it’s the teacher who learns the most, not the students. That’s the secret no one tells you.

  3. Your experience mirrors my own; all I would hope with younger hires (and basically eventually if you’re lucky enough to stay in the business, that’s everyone) is that they don’t come at you with an attitude of ageism. That there’s respect for where you are and how you got there. Learning works both ways, it’s true, but to come in be like, “who’s OLD!” even in gest, is a real barrier. Putting down one’s armour and accepting that we can all learn, no matter what stage or age we are at, is the first step in collaborating successfully. Ridiculing isn’t the way. I felt that from a younger co-worker who eventually became a good friend; because I put up my guard and felt defensive, the development of our friendship and collaboration was slowed. R-E-S-P-E-C-T – both given and received is all we need. Oh, that and love. But I’m sure that gets reported to HR. LOL

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