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Let the students teach — A new approach to the mentor relationship

By Elaine Varelas, 07/07/2008

School is out for the summer, but that doesn't mean children stop learning. In fact, children discover a wealth of knowledge during these hazy, hot, and humid days - how to swim, ride a bike, catch a ball, or eat an ice cream cone without it melting. And they often learn these things from someone other than a teacher -a camp counselor, neighborhood kids, or their brothers and sisters.

How can HR managers take a cue from children to create unconventional learning relationships at work? One way might be to revamp the traditional mentor relationship. Customarily, a mentor in the workplace is very similar to a teacher in a classroom. A more senior person is matched with a younger, inexperienced colleague. The mentor teaches the colleague about the organization and the industry; he or she is there for support, advice, and guidance, and then sits back and watches their little fledgling grow and move through the ranks. It is a one-sided relationship where the mentor gives and the mentee takes. While this type of association is valuable, there's a way to turn this traditional mentor relationship on its head - by allowing the student to be the teacher.

Recent college graduates and younger workers have much to share despite their lack of workplace experience. Many members of this generation represent different demographics, cultures, and markets. They may even have experience, traits or skills unknown to more seasoned employees at the organization. Their alternative viewpoint can also be refreshing and enlightening.

Are there instances in your organization where this upside-down mentor relationship might work? HR managers can start by asking, "In our organization, what does our leaders' work look like? Can it be improved by partnering with a younger person?" Here are some examples of where this relationship might benefit your organization:

  • A leader needs to learn a specific skill or technology. Most college graduates today can IM, text, and send e-mails from their Blackberries, while they simultaneously Skype their friends and write a blog. Many younger people have an intrinsic knowledge of technology (they grew up with it) and are willing to share their expertise. Is there a manager at your organization who could benefit from a course on the latest technologies? Is there new software that is more efficient than what your organization has been using for years? Does one of your long-time salespeople need to learn how to use a PDA to stay in touch with team members, or could they benefit from learning how to use social networking sites to identify new clients? Instead of investing in expensive training, enlist younger workers to deliver one-on-one instruction.

  • A manager wants to "get to know" a team. A senior manager who is heading up a team of recent college grads might want take advantage of a mentor relationship to get a crash course in what motivates this generation. The most effective managers have a connection to their teams, but they first need to get to know them. What is important to them at work? How do they approach their careers? What are they hoping to get out of their jobs? How do they like to communicate with their peers and managers? How do they want to be rewarded? While one person can't answer these questions for a whole group, they can help the manager learn more about an unfamiliar demographic.

  • A leader needs an image makeover. HR managers can also leverage these relationships to improve a leader's image. For example, a CIO who is considered old-fashioned and resistant to change might get an image boost from "being seen" with the funky new IT hire.

As an HR manager, you may be anticipating some resistance to this approach at your organization. Your senior managers may say, "What can this junior person possibly teach me? I've been at this organization and in this industry longer than she has been alive!" Well, exactly. One of the benefits of this unusual relationship is that younger professionals often have a fresh perspective due, in part, to their inexperience or "greenness." Senior managers might also be convinced because these relationships don't have to be formal or long term. They can be an hour, a day, six months, or as long as it takes to learn a new technology or communication style.

One major benefit of this association is that it allows for a more natural, symbiotic relationship. Instead of just "taking" from a more experienced colleague, the younger person also has expertise to share and can make a positive impact on the organization. These relationships have the opportunity to flourish into something bigger where the partners discuss not just a work task, but life goals, family challenges, and career and retirement choices. They can also help bridge the generation gap within an organization to create a more cohesive team.

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