Formal training programs help employees and managers succeed as elements of their jobs change over time. Some companies also use mentoring, which traditionally is when a veteran meets with a younger employee to educate him or her in areas where the veteran has solid experience. The mentor answers the mentee's questions about work or the company, offers tips and shares stories about his or her own background and career path. This serves to accelerate junior workers' development.

Every reverse mentoring relationship, whether it works or not, has takeaways for both parties.

Technology's rapid advancement in recent years has spurred another version of this arrangement: reverse mentoring. Companies that engage in this practice also pair up employees of different generations, but do so with the goal of having the younger workers impart understanding to older ones. Topics include social media and other tech applications, communication styles, purchasing influences and other millennial business traits.

Teaching Veterans New Skills

Reverse mentoring in a midsized firm can have a significant impact. Mid- and late-career workers become well-versed in new tools, processes and markets, and gain insight about a rapidly growing segment of the workforce. This results in improved job performance, stronger camaraderie, increased job satisfaction and less turnover among all employees, which is especially important as the middle market competes against enterprises for talent.

For any midsized companies considering a reverse mentoring program, here are some ways to maximize success:

  1. Choose your reverse mentors wisely. Screen younger employees for particular skills or interests that could be of use to specific senior employees or managers. Screening for personality matches might be helpful too, though sometimes veterans benefit from someone bringing diversity in personality and perspective.
  2. Get both sides to buy in. Junior staffers, who will have a chance to show off their collaboration and leadership skills while gaining access to senior organization members, probably won't require much persuasion. But for some older employees — especially managers — losing credibility among peers is a real concern. As a result, upper management must openly support the program at the outset, and then share success stories with all employees.
  3. Have defined expectations for both mentor and mentee. This means creating a clear list of topics to cover and specific goals to attain. There should also be mutually agreed-upon rules and guidelines: how often to meet and for how long, how to prepare, what will be discussed in each session, and a pledge to communicate in a transparent way to prevent misunderstandings (and move past them should they occur). Both parties must be open to seeing things from another perspective and allow themselves to be pushed out of their comfort zones. The purpose of the exercise is to achieve professional growth, after all.
  4. Give it time. Most reverse mentor relationships last between six and 24 months. It can take some time for both people to get used to each other's style, find common ground and make a connection, and then to show progress toward improved job performance.
  5. Don't give up on failed pairings. First, debrief each person to learn what mistakes were made and how you might avoid them in other mentoring relationships. Second, they should both be given a new mentee or mentor. Failed pairings that aren't addressed will only reinforce stereotypes, reduce trust and widen your organization's generation gap.

Companies that engage in reverse mentoring are likely to find that reciprocal mentoring takes place: The younger person learns from the senior person, too, as they talk and share perspectives. Overall, reverse mentoring enhances and accelerates knowledge transfer in the firm, gives both younger and older employees skills and confidence in new areas and strengthens the team atmosphere.

Has your company tried any unorthodox leadership and development programs? What were some hurdles you had to overcome? How did employees receive these programs? Let us know by commenting below.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.