Reverse Mentoring and Employee Engagement

During Jack Welch’s tenure at General Electric, he championed the concept of “reverse mentoring.” Reverse Mentoring is where more mature employees seek the advice of younger colleagues in effort to learn technology skills or to otherwise remain culturally relevant. I have been experiencing a bit of reverse mentoring here at DecisionWise, and it’s been eye-opening.

One of my responsibilities as COO at DecisionWise is to oversee our technology and underlying strategies. Like most growing organizations, we are constantly challenged to stay abreast on the latest technology in order to be disruptive, innovative, and provide value to our clients. The difficulty with technology is that it changes faster than Kim Kardashian’s wardrobe. So, I found myself constantly visiting with our development team in their “software lab” to discuss the latest tools and technology changes. Over time, I found myself focusing my attention on one of our younger developers, Micah. Micah is a self-proclaimed nerd, and a disciple of popular geek culture (i.e., think of The Big Bang Theory on television). He is also incredibly creative and talented.

Unbeknownst to Micah, he was quietly becoming my reverse mentor. I would pepper him with questions and “what if” scenarios on how our technology could maintain its quality and continue to serve our client’s needs, and he would calmly respond like a Hindu yogi. But, that’s not how it’s supposed to work, right? Being older, wiser, and possibly better looking (my opinion), it was up to me to dispense the wisdom of all things business.

In commenting on the power of reverse mentoring, Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, has noted, “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way as the young twenty-something’s. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”.[2] Webber’s right. And Micah was, and is, helping us figure things out at DecisionWise.

As our talks increased, I learned that our relationship had an unanticipated consequence. Being my mentor was helping Micah’s engagement at DecisionWise. And this is where I want Micah to share his part of the story:

DecisionWise Micah WardellWhen Matt arrived at DecisionWise, I was closing in on my first year with the company. Just before Matt’s arrival, I was on vacation with my family on a beach in California. With work off my mind, I had some time to think about what I had accomplished in the past year and what the future looked like. When I looked back I saw many great accomplishments mixed with a few struggles. The people I work with are great, the services we offer are top-notch providing significant value to our clients and have the power to change people’s outlook in their jobs. Great stuff right?

However, I was struggling to get excited about work and tackling the next project. My engagement was fading. That’s an interesting position to be in while purportedly helping build a product that measures employee engagement.

I returned from vacation trying to get excited about where we were headed and embrace the strategy and roadmap that had been outlined. It was becoming difficult for me. I was looking for something that could help increase my engagement level. A couple days after returning from vacation we had a company meeting and the owner announced Matt as a new hire and COO of DecisionWise. I left the meeting feeling excited, hoping that his addition to the team was just the disruption I needed to help increase my personal engagement at work. Little did I know how far that would go.

The relationship that quickly formed between Matt and I really helped drive my engagement. As Matt started asking more questions about how to take our technology to the next level, I naturally went beyond simply answering them and started thinking bigger picture. My brain regularly fills with ideas and I saw how these could be aligned with our company’s strategy. I dug deeper into the questions he was asking and wanted to come back with solutions, not just answers to questions. Matt listened to my suggestions with genuine interest and began implementing them into the company.  I was able to offer advice and insight, and ultimately see the positive impact my ideas were having on the company. My engagement level naturally increased and I immediately recognized the importance of one of the essential keys to employee engagement, IMPACT. I now see a clearer and more exciting picture than I could sitting on a beach a couple months ago.

Now, Micah regularly stops by my office and our CEO’s office with new ideas to share. And, each visit is well worth our time. First of all, they are fun. Second, we engage in collaboration that is helping DecisionWise become even more innovative and competitive. Micah’s engagement is infectious, and we can see it helping others as well. At the end of the day, this post isn’t about me finding the right mentor, it’s about Micah’s engagement and his tremendous contributions to our team. Jack Welch was right. You are never too old to have a good mentor, and your mentor’s age, title, or position shouldn’t matter.

[1] Reverse Mentoring Cracks the Workplace, Leslie Kwoh, The Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2011.
[2] Reverse Mentoring: What it is and Why it is Beneficial, Lisa Quast, forbes.com, January 3, 2011.
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