In Her Words: Lessons Leaders Across Generations Can Learn from Each Other
When I was 21, I became the “reverse mentor” of Michelle Greenwald, a former Fortune 100 Marketing Executive. We entered into a win-win relationship: I share my Millennial perspective, social networking tips, and insights into the latest trends. And, Michelle tells me about her daily learnings, offers advice based on years of experience, and inspires me to grow. Here are just a few of the many life lessons I’ve learned from my reverse mentoring experience.
1. Our Generations Are More Alike than Different
When comparing Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials, and Gen-Z, we tend to focus on the differences. Putting everything (and everyone) into boxes is sometimes simpler. But, if there’s one thing spending time with senior-level executives has taught me, it’s that these stereotypes around age only hinder collaboration. If you look past them, you’ll see that we share many of the same values, beliefs, and fears. And, how we each express (or don’t express) our common, human feelings depends on the context in which we have grown, not our age. To give reverse mentorship a try, having a growth mindset is all anybody needs.
2. From Hard to Soft Skills
The desire to enhance hard skills (e.g., LinkedIn professional use) is usually how individuals justify their decision to seek reverse mentorship. But, reverse mentoring and cross-generational learning can also improve soft skills that younger generations are longing for. The reverse mentoring programs I have implemented in organizations these past years show that millennials are longing to develop soft skills (e.g., public speaking, expand and maintain one’s network) whereas established generations rather learn about trends (e.g., “AI” or “blockchain”).
3. It’s a Pass to the Other Side of the Fence
Having a reverse mentor can be a fantastic way to get valuable insider knowledge and impartial feedback from the other side of the fence. It’s not always easy to gauge how we come across to people in our immediate circle. But, the context of a reverse mentorship enables both sides to discuss management and leadership styles without fear of judgment. I remember attending a few of Michelle’s marketing and innovation classes. I would give my feedback as a student. In exchange, Michelle would offer advice on how to present myself, either in class or as a future female entrepreneur meeting with senior execs (aka potential customers).
4. Ongoing Source of Inspiration and Confidence Booster
Being a reverse mentor is about cheering your mentee on, inspiring them, and pushing them to go outside their comfort zone. When you have someone to motivate you, it can give you the confidence you need to try new things. Before I watched Michelle write for Forbes, I had never been interested in writing my thoughts down on paper. When I noticed that the things we discovered together inspired her writing, it made me ask myself, “Why not?” So, here I am sharing my story. As for Michelle, I encouraged her to create an Instagram account. She is now posting, adding hashtags, and collecting likes.
5. Broaden Your Scope of Knowledge and Creativity
Creativity is the sum of everything you have seen, heard, and experienced in life. Discussing subjects that might be out of your “generational scope” allows you to expand your horizons. My time with Michelle, especially our discussions about her book, have shifted my perception of innovation. She inspired me to look for the connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. I might not have noticed this cross-pollination of ideas if it weren’t for Michelle’s ability to pull inspiration from anywhere. Did you know that Haribo candy colors inspired the 1998 Macbook shades?
6. Learning by Teaching
As Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Interactive and participatory teaching methods (e.g., group discussions and team-based learning) are way more impactful than passive learning (e.g., listening to a lecture or reading). When you explain something to someone else and they still don’t comprehend, they’ll likely ask you a question to clarify. If you’re having trouble answering the question, then maybe you need to brush up on the topic. Maybe, you have to adapt the way you communicate so that the other person can better understand what you’re trying to explain. By teaching, we all have an opportunity to learn and deepen our pedagogical skills and expertise.
Each year, Michelle and I go over the Mary Meeker trend report—the most highly anticipated 300 slides deck in Silicon Valley. Every other slide or so, she will ask me to share my opinions. Giving personal insights into a range of subjects has pushed me to develop my critical thinking skills. Instead of throwing around cool buzzwords, I truly know what I’m talking about and can defend my point of view on subjects that matter to me.
7. It’s a Special Kind of Friendship
Reverse mentoring can be a form of genuine friendship between two people from different generations, but with more diversity of perspective and sharing. It’s a special bond that’s about supporting each other, enjoying meals together, having informal talks, trying a variety of new activities, and laughing — as friends do.
As for Michelle and me, our relationship goes far beyond basic business and innovation chats. Together, we’ve biked along the Hudson River, tasted tapas in Barcelona, and spent countless hours speaking on the phone since I moved away to Paris. All the moments we’ve shared over the past three years have contributed to our personal growth and an outstanding reverse mentoring experience.
Ieva Gaigala is a 24-year old entrepreneur, speaker, and reverse mentor who believes that connecting people across generations is the key to unleashing our full potential. She is a reverse mentoring expert that matches digital natives with the right senior leaders and helps them build win-win relationships. Her company, Revolyx, offers corporate reverse mentoring programs around the world.
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