The Generation Gap Isn't Going Anywhere, So Use it to Your Advantage

Are you a mentor or a mentee?

Traditional mentorship is typically defined as an inexperienced person (usually younger) being guided by someone seasoned in his or her field (oftentimes older). Jack Welch propagated the idea of reverse mentorship in the late '90s while serving as CEO at General Electric. Reverse mentorship is essentially recognizing that the younger people in the workforce have equally valuable knowledge and skills to share, despite their career inexperience.

Create a safe learning environment for younger employees.

Generation gaps have always existed in the workplace. When I landed an assistant director position at 22 years old -- less than a full year out of college -- most of my colleagues were at least 10 years my senior. I had the skills to do my job well, but initially my age and inexperience were at the forefront of doubt for a few.

My director created a safe learning environment where I was allowed to take risks and make mistakes -- and believe me, I had made my fair share of mistakes (perhaps I'll share some of my epic mishaps in a future post). Instead of chastisement, my director used each situation as a teaching moment to fill the inexperience gaps with instruction. I appreciated his leadership style, and I'm an effective leader today because of his influence.

Never stop learning.

The younger and older generations can learn tremendously from each other. The relationship I have with my mentor Christine Bond is a testament to that fact. Christine is the CEO of The X-CEL Group, and spent 25+ years as a global executive at a Fortune 100 company before diving into entrepreneurship. She sits on my advisory board, and brings a wealth of expertise and experience to the table. I deeply trust Christine, and our relationship is built off mutual admiration.

Despite my few years of entrepreneurial experience, I still have much to learn. I always appreciate when Christine carves out special time to pour her wisdom into my cup. She has been an exceptional guide, and I've also learned a great deal by just watching her. Here are the top three things I've learned by observation alone:

  • Building relationships - Christine is extremely skilled in building new relationships. People gravitate towards her authenticity and vibrant energy. I closely watch how she interacts with people, and try to emulate her style.
  • Heart-based leadership - Powerful leaders are experts at recognizing and cultivating the greatness in others. Christine is adept in bringing the best out of her team and clients. As I build my own team, I'm consciously choosing to develop a work environment filled with love, growth, and positive energy.
  • Humility - Christine is one of the most humble people I have met. Despite her success, she's extremely grounded and treats everyone with the same level of respect regardless of their social status. As I continue to build material wealth, I will constantly live by the Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated.

The teacher is also the student.

I still recall when Christine first asked for my advice. Honestly I was surprised that she valued my opinion. I soon discovered our sentiments toward each other were equally shared.

I sat down with Christine to find out exactly how she felt about our mentor/mentee relationship. This is what she had to say:

The top thing that's impressive is how you aren't afraid to ask questions. You ask questions without pretense or any vulnerability. When I coach people, I tell them that they have to ask the right questions. And even though I'd coached others to ask questions, I was modeling the exact opposite.

In a senior leadership role you're expected to know all the answers, so asking was a huge vulnerability for me. Picking your brain was uncomfortable at first because of the significant age difference between us. It's not that I was ashamed or prideful - it's just that doing so didn't come natural to me because that's not what I was taught to do.

You taught me that it's OK to ask.

When you're in a mentoring role, you have to first gain the trust of the person you're mentoring. Reverse mentoring happens when the trust is developed on both sides, and the mentor is also able to be vulnerable.

As I stated before, me being reluctant to ask wasn't about being prideful - but over time I had developed a comfort level with you where I could truly be myself. The only way I could learn that was by watching you.

You've also given a fresh perspective to some of my old-school concepts. I used to think I was aging with my processes and tools. But when I give you a tool or suggestion, you put your own twist to it and immediately implement it. Within a week you would come back with tangible results. You have successfully taken some of the tools I have been using for 25 years, and made them applicable to your generation. You're not afraid to take risks, and you're confident in what you know.

You inspire me.

I love your authenticity. As we've been working together over the past year, I've noticed that you always stay true to yourself. I admire that about you.

Through experience I've learned that any mentor relationship, whether reverse or traditional, will fail without these critical factors:

  • Trust - There is a mutual level of trust that needs to exist between both parties. As you're aware, trust is a vital component of any relationship, business or personal.
  • Competency - Both parties must possess the capacity to add value to one another.
  • Authenticity and transparency - Both parties must be genuine, open, and honest with their feelings and thoughts.
  • Patience - Both parties must recognize and embrace the differences. Be patient as you both explore the boundaries, and push each other beyond them.
  • Commitment - Both parties must be committed to learning from one another.

My symbiotic mentor/mentee relationship taught me the value of forming inter-generational bonds. As I continue to grow in age and experience, I'll never forget the priceless lessons I'm learning from seasoned vets in the game. Decades from now I'll have the privilege of learning from the generations behind me, and imparting my own years of wisdom.

If my piece really resonates with you and you're interested in reading more, visit my company blog The Briefcase - where we share tips, tools, and advice for ambitious executives navigating through the business landscape and life. We also reveal the lessons we're learning as we grow our company. Sign up for our newsletter, and let's stay in touch.