Sharing Perspectives in a Diverse Workplace Holds Water

The newsletters I review each week recently contained two items that caught my eye.  One topic was inevitable for this time of year and one was unexpected.  Generally in December, managers are thinking about a number of year-end or annual tasks, so the article on year-end performance reviews was not a surprise.  I, however, was not familiar with the concept of reverse mentoring, although according to the recent Wall Street Journal article, another one from Foxbusiness.com and one from Forbes that appeared a full year ago, the concept has been around for about a decade and was championed by Jack Welch during his tenure as General Electric’s CEO.

Reverse mentoring – the idea that younger, less experienced workers can educate older, more senior employees – tends to be discussed in a framework of technology and/or social media and assumes that younger employees have more expertise in those areas than older workers.  The other commonly mentioned benefit of reverse mentoring is that it creates access to upper management (and their business experience) for employees who don’t normally have that opportunity.

My guess is that those ideas were truer a decade ago when the concept was first introduced than they are today.  I hope there aren’t too many of you who believe those things describe your organization or any organization where top performance is a daily focus.  Top performers aren’t likely to allow themselves to become technological dinosaurs or to find themselves reliant on junior staffers to manage important business trends.  Top organizations are also likely to encourage open communication and knowledge sharing rather than restrict the flow of information and ideas.

So even if the idea of reverse mentoring needs some updating, I’m not ready to accept the premise that “it is a gimmick” as Lance Haun says in his recent blog for TLNT.com. To me, Mr. Haun seems to be hung up on definitions and details that may have outlived their relevance.  I believe that the underlying idea that older, more senior employees might be able to learn something from other workers is still valid.

Perhaps Mr. Haun would be more receptive if the concept was redefined as a broader sharing of ideas and expertise among diverse members of a team or organization.  In some organizations, that concept might already exist under a different umbrella – we provide “cross training” for team members or groups regardless of seniority or experience so that we don’t lose expertise when a process specialist is away or leaves the company.  While that doesn’t exactly satisfy the original definition of reverse mentoring, I think it upholds the spirit of the concept.  We also hold brainstorming or problem solving sessions when faced with certain business challenges or opportunities and appreciate the value that different employees bring to the conversation.

I started this blog by stating that two items caught my attention recently – reverse mentoring and annual performance reviews.  While one was new to me and the other was routine, I came to see how they could blend and reinforce each other.  As a manager, when you are reviewing employee performance and setting goals for the coming year, it makes sense to identify targets for improving existing skills or learning new ones.  It might also make sense to pair up your younger workers with others who need reinforcement or training on critical department processes.  Whether you label it reverse mentoring or not, it’s a good idea to take advantage of the talent in your organization and the annual review process is a great time to set new goals and responsibilities for your team.

Nancy Lane, Director of Human Resources, Red Book Solutions

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