What Lady Gaga Can Teach Us About Mentorship

Music superstar Lady Gaga has been riding high on a new album and an American tour kicking off after the Super Bowl, but a few years ago, she was vying for a different title: Intern.

In 2010, Lady Gaga applied for an internship with world renowned designer Philip Treacy after she had worked with him on a few of her stage costumes. Gaga, the musical powerhouse, clearly still saw a need to be the student, and business executives can learn from her example. Business leaders can benefit in a variety of ways by learning from their junior staff by what I like to call "Reverse Mentoring."

"Reverse Mentoring" flips top-down mentoring on its head by pairing junior team members with more experienced staff. The "junior" team member might be a rookie just out of college or graduate school, but one who offers skill and perspective to get hired in the first place. Reverse Mentoring leverages these skills and perspectives to benefit leaders and colleagues in an organization.

I have applied Reverse Mentoring for years with much success in my businesses. Here are four reasons why other businesses should consider including Reverse Mentoring in their culture as well:

  1. A New Perspective on Problem-Solving: People with less experience by definition have less technical know-how than their managers, but gaps in knowledge can lend themselves to curiosity and an embrace of learning. Senior staff tend to accumulate preferences with experience, which can lead to stale strategies for tackling projects and challenges. Junior staff may ask questions that may not have crossed the minds of senior staff since they were first learning the tasks themselves, which brings fresh and unbiased perspectives to tasks that lead to new pathways for success.

    Junior staff members' untainted outlooks can bring diverse perspectives to challenges that others might not have seen. A Deloitte study found that "diversity of thought", or variance in the way people process tasks, can promote innovation by preventing groupthink, a common phenomenon that causes companies to lose touch and fall behind. Reverse Mentoring encourages employees to approach common business challenges in different ways.

  2. A More Egalitarian Work Environment: I have found that Reverse Mentoring is especially effective among Millennials, who are generally more adverse to a conventional, hierarchical work environment than past generations. In their book What Millennials Want From Work, social science researchers Jennifer Deal and Alec Levenson describe Millennials as ambitious despite their lesser work experience. "...(T)hey think they should contribute as much as possible from the moment they join the organization." Reverse Mentoring motivates Millennials because it puts them in a pseudo-leadership role. It gives them the opportunity to put in the hard work they so eagerly want to do.

    The collaborative nature of Reverse Mentoring also appeals to workers of all ages. According to a 2014 survey, 57 percent of workers chose a "highly collaborative environment" when asked what they would include in an ideal work environment. Keeping communication lines strong between senior and junior staff can make for a positive and efficient work environment while building strong bonds in the process.

  3. Better Communication: By pairing people up with those whom they might not have otherwise worked, Reverse Mentoring opens up new communication channels. These unlikely pairings of individuals via Reverse Mentoring can clear the path for meaningful communication on company business and, potentially, spur innovation. According to a 2014 study published by Dale Carnegie Training, more than half of employees of small businesses surveyed wanted better communications from management as a means to drive engagement. In this regard, Reverse Mentoring can do wonders for company synergy, as well as employee retention across the organization.
  4. A Culture Boost: In particular, I have found that Reverse Mentoring reduces competition between employees to create a more collaborative culture. The opportunity for staff to meet new colleagues via Reverse Mentoring increases the likelihood that they will build strong bonds across the workplace. Stronger bonds with coworkers create a more enjoyable work experience. They reinforce a culture of alliance and camaraderie, which is essential to a happy and profitable company. When asked to name what changes would most impact their company's profitability, 56% of senior staff ranked a collaboration-related measure as the #1 factor, according to a recent study by Google. Reverse Mentoring is a key part of this dynamic.

Well-meaning business leaders may think it's enough to simply mentor their entry-level employees. However, just as Lady Gaga was able to set aside the pride of her Queen of Pop bona fides to diversify her talents, all company leaders can benefit from learning the other way around. Reverse Mentoring helps businesses and business leaders greatly by providing a new perspective on problem-solving, fostering a more egalitarian work environment, boosting communication and supporting a healthy workplace culture. Learning can take place in unlikely settings and from unconventional sources, and Reverse Mentoring provides just the eccentric opportunities to yield benefits across the entire organization.