A Mentoring Role Reversal

Most of us have had some exposure to a mentoring program.  Many companies implement programs at various levels of formality and to various levels of success.

Some organizations establish formal policies for mentoring. “Herman, you’ll be mentored by Fred”. Other companies make it a strong recommendation but not required. “Find someone you respect and ask them to be a mentor. Learn as much as you can from them.”

In almost all cases, an older or at least more experienced person is the mentor while the mentee is green in some way due to less experience.

And that stands to reason. If Bob has worked in the industry for twenty years and has served in most of the roles in the company, he obviously has a wealth of knowledge that he could pass down to the newbie. We’ll pair them up and he can show them the ropes; teach them the ins and outs of the business and any political tips he might clue them in on.

Role Reversal

What if we turned that around? What if the new college graduate mentored the old guy? Most responses would be something like: “What the hell could a green college grad teach an experienced worker?” Some might ask “Don’t these cocky young kids act like they know everything already? That’s all we need to do is empower them to tell us what to do.”

And if it was any other generation, I would probably agree with you. But this is Generation Y, the group of people who range in age from their late teens to early thirties. Because of when they were born, they are a very unique group of people.

Why Generation Y is Unique

Because of the timing of their births, they don’t remember the advent of the internet in the mid-nineties. They don’t remember a time when the only phone we owned was attached to the wall in our kitchen. As far as they know, the internet and cell phones have always been around.

Contrast that with the Baby Boom generation, the group of people born during the twenty year period after World War II. The Baby Boom generation saw those early static pages of the internet, the subsequent burst bubble of internet companies such as Pets.com, and the internet’s reinvention with web 2.0. The Baby Boomers remember when “car phones” were those bricks that people held to their ears, and witnessed them grow in popularity as flip phones and eventually saw smart phones become commonplace.

Many people in the Baby Boom generation still have flip phones. “I use my phone as a phone!” they say somewhat indignantly. While most of them use the internet, many aren’t on Facebook or Twitter. “I don’t need to tell everybody what I had for lunch!”

Because generation Y grew up surrounded with this technology, it’s not new and, therefore it is not intimidating to them. Most never learned how to type, but can do it faster with two thumbs than an experienced administrative assistant can do with ten digits.

The internet brought things within our control that were previously inaccessible. We can now publish blogs and entire books with relative ease online. Gen-Yers have learned to program and easily publish software and Smartphone apps. This generation not only knows the internet, they know how to apply it. They have naturally been networking and marketing using technology most of their lives.

So what if, while the Baby Boomers mentor the Gen-Yers on business, leadership and all of the other knowledge they’ve acquired over the years, the Gen-Yers turn the tables and mentor the Baby Boomers on the latest trends in technology, networking techniques and online publishing.

Imagine the increased productivity an organization would reap if the younger generation learned from the experiences of their elders while the Baby Boomers became more knowledgeable on the latest trends in technology.


Certainly there will be challenges to a program like this.  The biggest would most likely be finding Baby Boomers who are open-minded to the idea of younger people mentoring them.  Some will feel they’ve paid their dues and have earned the right to mentor the young guys. They may resent having younger people teach them.

Baby Boomers may also fail to see the benefits of learning about Twitter and Facebook.  But Gen-Yers can also teach them how those tools can be used in business for marketing, promotion and sharing of content.  The younger generation can show the more mature generation some of the cool apps that are available on Smartphones which help people be productive. This could also result in giving them ideas for new apps that their company could write and distribute.

Developing a rapport between two diverse generations can also be challenging.  Many people in a mentoring role don’t know what the other person doesn’t know or what the other person is interested in learning.  Some mentors don’t even realize they have special knowledge, assuming that most people already know what they know.

So meeting with a person that you are supposed to teach and who is also supposed to teach you can take some time to determine how each person can complement the other’s knowledge base.

Sometimes it just won’t work between two people, but further attempts will need to be made until you find the right people for a successful mentoring relationship.

Better yet, it doesn’t have to be a monogamous relationship.  If you think of mentoring as a process rather than a program, mentoring can take place on the fly.  Anytime you ask someone a question and they provide useful advice, mentoring is taking place.  A forty-five year old executive can turn to a twenty-three year old for advice on how to set up a blog.  That could be the only advice the young person provides in that relationship, but mentoring took place.

So instead of establishing a formal program with a formal set of relationships, creating an environment of openness where people turn to anyone in the know for advice could be the mentoring trend of the future.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

About the author: Lew Sauder is the author of Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting.  He has been a consultant with top-tier and boutique consulting firms for seventeen years.  He is currently a Senior Project Manager at Geneca.  Lew can be reached at Lew@Consulting101Book.com.


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  • 9/3/2013 11:15 AM Matthew wrote:

    I see the value in flip flopping the mentoring concept, though what happened to Gen X?

    They likely are caught in and forced to learn the new technology coming out as it is making many job irrelevant overnight. Look at what is happening in print media and advertising, Gen Xers there are forced to learn or become irrelevant.

    I do think there are those Gen Xers that do know tech and those that don't. Regardless I think this applies to them as well.

    Though I am curious if baby boomers are more open to being mentored by those closer to them vs. those further away?
    Reply to this
    1. 9/5/2013 6:47 AM Consulting 101 Blog wrote:
      Matthew, you raise some excellent points.  I've done some research on this for an upcoming book on the subject of multi-generational mentoring.  I've found that Gen-X tends to get split down the middle.  The "older half" of gen-Xers have tendencies towards the baby boomers while the "younger half" (there's no official cut-off for birth dates) tend to be more like Gen-Yers in regards to technology.
      Thanks for your comments.

      Reply to this
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