Reverse mentoring is the technique that helps managers as much as their employees

Even Tim Cook can learn something new.
Even Tim Cook can learn something new.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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As a leader, one of the most empowering moments is when you’re reminded that you don’t know everything.

This happens to me all the time. There was the time, for example, when I was determined to launch an internal newsletter to connect with my employees. But during a random coffee, a new training consultant on our team pointed out that, in all likelihood, no one would read it. Instead, a short weekly video from me, posted on our internal company Facebook, would be a far better way to go. She was absolutely right, of course, and I’ve been making weekly CEO update videos ever since.

The takeaway for me from many experiences like this: Instead of teaching your employees what you’ve learned over the years, consider letting them teach you instead. This is called “reverse mentoring.”

The concept of reverse mentoring was popularized in the late 1990s by former GE chief Jack Welch. He saw the way that the internet was transforming business, and he recognized that GE’s youngest employees had a lot to teach its executives. So he flipped the normal mentoring relationship on its head, pairing 500 senior leaders with new hires to meet regularly and learn about emerging tools and technologies.

This proved to be a two-way street. Not only did seasoned leaders benefit from fresh eyes, new perspectives, and direct insights into new technology, but younger employees also got to work alongside senior executives, forge relationships, and navigate their way up the company hierarchy.

The pace of technological change has only accelerated since then. With the advent of blockchain, open-source coding, and machine learning, it’s easy to find yourself out of touch with the tools that your employees, customers, and competitors are embracing—no matter your age.

Reverse mentoring can help bridge that gap. Inside my company, I’ve come to rely on meetings and conversations with new hires and younger employees to stay up to date on nascent trends—the ones that don’t have a playbook quite yet, and where the only experts are hardcore users with a couple years’ experience. Younger employees are a lot more valuable (and eager to teach) than they’re given credit for, and the potential for a symbiotic relationship—for senior leaders to help junior employees find their footing and career path—makes this management technique a true no-brainer.

Reverse mentoring can be formal with a set, regular schedule, or it can be more casual. I’ll meet new employees through “random coffee” matchups, or I’ll take the time to chat at weekly company socials, where everyone gets together over snacks and drinks in real life and without a computer in front of them. Employee lightning talks (five-minute, informal presentations on hobbies and interests) and company-wide hackathons (where teams dedicate a day or two to solving passion projects) also tend to surface new and exciting tech—the kind of stuff that upends whole sectors and changes the way we do business.

Here are four areas where leaders can benefit from the understanding and passion of younger colleagues, regardless of what sector you work in:

Artificial intelligence

There’s little debate that AI will prove to be the most transformative technology since the internet itself. From cars and manufacturing to banking and advertising, progressive companies are already making massive investments. But many CEOs have little idea what it can (or can’t) do for them. In many cases, having unrealistic expectations for AI is just as bad as dismissing the technology itself outright.

That’s why a little reverse mentoring here is critical. This year, commit to learning more from your developers and engineers about how AI is transforming your field—not in a hypothetical way, but in a right-here, right-now way. At the same time, support them in understanding the broader business applications for this new technology.

Diversity and inclusion

2017 was a year when issues around diversity and inclusion, especially in media and technology, leapt into the headlines and demanded attention. Younger employees and HR professionals bring a powerful awareness around these issues, and they’re often equipped with a critical-theory toolkit older leaders lack.

Take, for example, sensitivity around the impact of unconscious bias—a term that wasn’t even part of the corporate vocabulary until a few years ago. I’ve benefited enormously from talking with individuals in my organization who are passionate about diversity and eager to share their knowledge. My company is now stronger for it, and the chance for younger employees to be heard and shape policy creates a real sense of ownership and unity.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain 

Why is cryptocurrency causing such a stir? And should ordinary businesses care? At its root, much of the excitement centers around blockchain, the tech behind bitcoin: It’s a digital, decentralized ledger for transactions made across a peer-to-peer network. While some critics dismiss blockchain as hype, boosters insist that the applications are virtually endless, enabling companies to cheaply and safely do everything from manage healthcare records to verify voters, negotiate contracts, and certify supply chains.

So could blockchain change the course of your business? Receiving some reverse mentoring from early adopters among your employees—hardcore enthusiasts who’ve been mining and following crypto for years—could offer business leaders a leg up in the years ahead.

Apps (yes, apps)

Do you know what apps your straight-out-of-university employees open up every day? Chances are that there’s a glimpse of the future to be gleaned there. Case in point: HQ Trivia. I started noticing younger employees playing the live game show-like app in the fall, back when it only had a few thousand users. Now it engages over a million in a single round. Understanding what the masses are interested in allows you to see what the future of social media and gaming might look like.

Getting reverse mentoring in apps might seem trivial, but before Uber, WhatsApp, or Instagram were multibillion-dollar, industry-changing behemoths, they were apps on some 20-something’s phone that no one over the age of 30 had ever heard of.

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The accelerating pace of technological change means that brand new tools and techniques are now emerging every few months, not just every few decades. Managers of all ages looking to stay relevant would therefore be wise to schedule a little reverse mentoring time into their calendar this year.

Your employees represent a powerful a guide to tomorrow’s customers—and tomorrow’s leaders. Learning from them and giving them a chance to learn from you is a win-win worth prioritizing.