Small Business And Start-Up

Why millennials make great mentors

Listen to your youngers.
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who commands more than 2.4 million followers on her campaign Twitter account and often makes national headlines with her tweets, gave fellow House Democrats a social media training Thursday alongside Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). It was slated to focus on “the most effective ways to engage constituents on Twitter and the importance of digital storytelling,” USA Today first reported.
“Class was in session this morning! I was thrilled to offer some insights on Twitter and social media to my. colleagues this morning,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday. “Now Majority @WhipClyburn is teaching me what all the bells mean in the Capitol.”
Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old representative sworn in just two weeks ago, often uses Twitter to respond directly to critics, share candid observations on how government works, and attract mainstream attention to her policy ideas — all in effortless millennial-speak. She is the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. Congress and part of the youngest freshman class since 2011.
“The older generation of members and senators is pretty clueless on the social media platforms. It’s pretty clear that a lot of members have 25-year-olds in their offices (running their social media),” Himes told USA Today.
Ocasio-Cortez’s training mirrors a larger trend: While traditional mentorships have featured senior-level executives and managers taking younger, less experienced employees under their wings, many professionals are learning that there’s also a lot to gain when the junior worker becomes the teacher.
Kara Nortman, 42, a partner at venture capital firm Upfront Ventures, credits her “Gen Z mentor” Tiffany Zhong, 21, with helping her communicate over text and social media more effectively, as well as understanding how younger consumers use technology. The women have been working together for two years, mostly through Twitter DMs, text and FaceTime.
“Tiff is particularly good at building relationships through unique communications mediums, which is one of the major things I’ve taken away from her,” Nortman told Moneyish. Zhong wants to start Zebra Intelligence, a consumer insights tech platform that lets brands get real-time feedback from Gen Z and teens on anything from product features to marketing materials. So she first messaged Nortman on Twitter for advice. “The joke is, I started out helping her, but soon she started mentoring me on all sorts of different things,” Nortman said.
Tiffany Zhong
Tiffany Zhong (l.) has been reverse-mentoring Kara Nortman (r.) for two years
“It’s a really interesting relationship we have, where I teach her how to tweet, use Snapchat, understand her kids, and she has been teaching me about company building and recruiting,” added Zhong, dishing that Nortman used to tweet paragraphs with too many hashtags. “I was like, ‘No one is reading this!’ Now she tweets more lists with emoji, which do really well.”
This reverse mentoring, or peer mentoring, isn’t a totally new concept. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously had junior workers at the company train 500 of his top managers in how to use the internet in the 90s. “We tipped the organization upside down,” he explained. “We now have the youngest and brightest teaching the oldest.”
Plus, activist and author Gloria Steinem, 84, has revealed that her mentor, the late Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller, was 11 years her junior. “Though she is younger than I am, Wilma becomes my mentor. Her gift for helping people find confidence in themselves is exactly what I need both in my work and in my life,” Steinem said while speaking as a special guest at “Gloria: A Life,” the off-Broadway play chronicling her life.
But companies including Cisco Systems, Procter & Gamble, Mastercard, Target, Mars Inc. and Fidelity have also developed and experimented with reverse mentoring programs, often to keep up with tech. “If you look at what is happening in the workforce right now, for perhaps the first time in history, the incoming generation is coming with skills that probably previous generations didn’t have, or that they are anxious about,” Dr. Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a University of Minnesota professor who has researched reverse mentoring, told Moneyish. “That’s one reason why this relationship is flourishing so much.”
But the reverse mentor relationship is about much more than teaching Baby Boomers how to use Snapchat, or helping Gen Xers market to millennial and Gen Z customers — it’s also about getting different generations to understand each other, which can make the workplace a more welcoming and productive environment.
At Mastercard, chief talent officer Kelly Joscelyne, who’s in her mid-40s, has enjoyed a reverse mentoring relationship with Sarah Gretczko, the senior VP of people insights and organization intelligence, since joining the company a year and a half ago. Gretczko suspected that Joscelyne could use a friendly guide while acclimating. “I remember going into her office and I shared with her, ‘How are you doing? I just want you to know that I struggled in my first year here … I’m happy to share my story with you,’” she told Moneyish. They have built a working relationship where Joscelyne values Gretczko’s feedback on her leadership style, or whether a product will do well in the U.S. versus Joscelyne’s native Australia.
Mastercard
Kelly Joscelyne (r.) and Sarah Gretzcko (l.) have a mutual mentorship at Mastercard.
The millennial has also taught the Gen Xer to be more open about her work-life balance with the rest of the staff. “One of the things I learned, being Generation X, was to talk less about my family, and show up more as a working woman and as a professional,” Joscelyne said. “Sarah has been very good at pointing out that, ‘Kelly … when you say, ‘I need to leave early today because I need to go and drop the kids off,’ that opens opportunities for other workers to feel comfortable to do the same.’ And that has actually been amazing coaching for me to let my guard down and role model being a working mom, rather than just a working woman.”
Reverse mentorships can help build a more inclusive workforce. After all, 20% of millennials (ages 18 to 34) identify as LGBTQ, compared to 7% of Baby Boomers, and almost of half say that a diverse and inclusive workplace is an important factor in their job search, as well as work-life balance. So listening to younger workers can shift company culture to be more open and representative. “At Procter & Gamble, they noticed a lot of turnover of women employees, so they partnered young women employees with senior level executives, to learn what would keep these women in the organizations. And as a result, they saw a decrease in turnover,” said Dr. Chaudhuri.
This reverse mentoring also helps retain millennials, who are the largest generation in the labor force — but also the most likely to leave, according to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, which found 43% plan to leave their job in the next two years. Dr. Chaudhuri's research has found that millennials in reverse mentor programs feel more loyalty to the company, and are more actively engaged.
But for this reverse mentoring relationship to work, the junior and senior partners need to be thoughtfully paired together so that their core values and personalities are compatible. And companies will have an easier time convincing senior execs to open themselves up to mentoring from someone a decade or more their junior if the program spells out exactly how this can help business (for example, retaining workers, or getting senior staff fluent on social media to increase Twitter impressions), as well as if top-level leadership, like someone in the C-Suite, sets an example by participating early on.
Dr. Chaudhuri also recommends an in-depth training and coaching session for the pairs, writing in an article that it helps in, “making them aware of their roles and responsibilities," and the that both parties should “be clear about their expectations.”
But most importantly, both people need to respect each other. “A C-suite executive who is so prone to giving advice can’t be bristling at the idea that, ‘Oh, some rookie is going to come and teach me?’” she said. “And you have to train the younger worker how to be polite and to understand corporate etiquette, so that the senior executive is more open to them.”