Mentoring in reverse

Patricia Kitchen for


12:27 PM EDT, April 11, 2008

Five years ago William Krol started making the transition from a longtime role as office administrator to that of a full-time writer-editor. And in 2006 he landed a job as publications editor for Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown. A few months later he was asked to add a whole new function to his workday: that of the foundation’s communications-media relations manager. So Krol did what any newbie would do: He turned to others for guidance. And among those he sought out for assistance were two 20-somethings he had come to know through his professional association.
Krol, in his mid-40s, has been engaging in reverse mentoring, where someone with significant years of work experience gets coaching from those fairly new to the workplace. As far as he’s concerned: When it comes to what really counts, “it’s the experience, not the age.”

And there is a range of situations where such reverse mentoring may be valuable:

— Perhaps most common: Seasoned professionals are seeking assistance with new computer programs and Web sites, electronic gadgets and other technologies. Jack Welch made a big splash with this in 1999 when he was chief executive of General Electric and told his senior executives to get help with technology from their younger and junior-level colleagues.

–Midlife professionals such as Krol are deciding to launch a new career — and are seeking guidance from others who are also fairly new to the role.

–Those charged with managing, hiring and retaining workers in the millennial generation — those just entering the workplace — are going straight to the source for insight into their work styles, language and motivators, as well as the best methods for engaging them. Mentoring in its traditional form found those more seasoned performing the role of professional godparent over stages of a younger person’s career.“The traditional mentor was older and wiser than the protege. Now the mentor is wiser, but not necessarily older,” says Belle Rose Ragins, professor of management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and co-editor of “The Handbook of Mentoring at Work — Theory, Research, and Practice” (Sage, $125).

Also, she says mentoring has taken on a more episodic format, made up of “short-term interactions that help people in their careers.” Many engaged in such activities, she said, may not even recognize they’re in a mentoring relationship.

Pat Lupino, marketing professor at Nassau Community College, says increasingly she’s seeing her former students coaching their bosses in all kinds of technology applications. And she’s actually part of a “mutual mentoring” relationship with a colleague 20 years her junior.

Indeed, large organizations are looking to capture the power of such nontraditional mentoring. In his new book, available online, “Decoding Generational Differences: Fact, fiction . . . or should we just get back to work?,” W. Stanton Smith, director of Next Generation Initiatives at Deloitte Llp, writes:

“Remember that we as leaders are experiencing a phenomenon that just might be new to humans . . . that the older we are, the less we know about a major force in our world — technology.

“In contrast, the younger you are, the more you know about technology. That’s why reverse mentoring makes sense, so leaders can at least become aware of what they don’t know.” (Download Smith’s book at; search for “decoding generational differences.”)

Smith says he’s part of an effort at Deloitte to shift mindsets about individuals in various age groups. The next step, he says, is to start encouraging employees to establish informally some of what he calls “mini-mentoring” relationships with one another.

Just what skills and knowledge could be shared among the office demographics? Here’s what Misti Burmeister, author of “From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations” (Synergy Press, $17.95), has to say:

–Besides their tech expertise and positive outlook, young people new to the workforce offer a fresh perspective as they see “new, innovative ways of getting things done faster and better,” Burmeister said.

–In return, older professionals can help younger workers refine their communication skills and see that communities need to be built face to face, not just online.

And mature professionals are getting help with new electronic technology. Krol says he’s received enormous benefit from the coaching of Lee Peretz, 25, and Laura O’Connell, 29, fellow members of the Public Relations Professionals of Long Island. They’ve helped him climb the learning curve at Web sites such as YouTube and Second Life — though he admits he’s yet to master Facebook.

It’s this mutual mentoring approach that the public relations group is taking, says Peretz, head of its young professionals committee, which sponsors quarterly mixers with baby boomers; they make up about 40 percent of the attendees. He’s seen one experienced freelance writer looking to get into public relations seeking advice from other members who have just established themselves in the business.

And Peretz, marketing coordinator at Grassi & Co. in Lake Success, says he coached one boomer who was nervous about switching to a different position. “It seemed like she wasn’t confident,” he says, “and she came to me because she thinks I’m a confident person.”

Krol says this is important: “Get over yourself.” In an earlier job he reported to younger bosses, he said, and “I had to get over the issue that I can answer only to older people. … Who better to learn technology from than folks who have grown up with it?”

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.

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