Long ago and far away, there arrived a new invention called ‘the personal computer’. This personal computer was a breakthrough in all sorts of ways. You could write documents on it, do complicated sums on it, even produce presentations on it, which could be turned into paper copies by connecting it electrically with a printer. Handily, you could also buy a printer small enough to fit into an office, if you could afford the astronomical contract price for a photocopier that also printed. (Don’t worry about what a ‘photocopier’ was – it isn’t important now).

You could also apparently manage large amounts of information on this personal computer in a ‘database’, although nobody actually knew how to do that. In fact, very few people knew how to do all the rest of this exciting stuff, so people who could learn how to manage a personal computer became much in demand.

Unsurprisingly, as the things you could do were all administrative tasks, the ‘Very Important People’ never needed to learn how to use a personal computer, until slowly it began to dawn on them that the people who had previously been ‘only’ secretaries and junior accountants and marketing assistants had stealthily become indispensable.

Two types of ‘Very Important People’ then emerged: those who realised that they weren’t actually that important – and those who didn’t. Sadly, some of the latter, or at least people with their attitude, are still with us (and in the early days, some of them even had secret lessons in how to use a personal computer, so their teams didn’t observe their ignorance). Mostly, though, our leadership figures have come to recognise that innovations will always leave some people ignorant, and being future-ready means keeping up with the curve only as much as practicable. That doesn’t mean learning every new trick – it means learning enough about the new tricks to assess whether or not they need to be learnt.

For the really clever leadership figures, it also means recognising that ‘innovation’ isn’t just about technology – it is simply the successful application of new ideas. Whilst some are still struggling to master the technologies behind augmented and virtual reality, the internet of things, advanced and predictive analytics, blockchain, and artificial intelligence, the smart money follows the understanding that processes, behaviours and even mindsets can be innovation.

And thus we come, eventually, to reverse mentoring.

In a piece I wrote back in November 2023, I mentioned that reverse mentoring usually means “mentoring of someone older or more experienced by a younger or less experienced person, who has a specific understanding”, and I used the example of myself as a Baby Boomer being mentored by a younger person in “the mindset and values of Generation X”. The most important element of that example is the principle of being mentored in the understanding of a different cognitive model – not something I would have imagined when younger, and indeed not something anyone would have thought much about in former years, although reverse mentoring has probably been around since people were invented.

To a large degree, reverse mentoring is still largely seen as a process of younger persons mentoring older or more senior figures, with the aim of consigning ineffective practices to the ‘We used to do that in the old days’ box. Let us not be constrained by that, though. If we view ‘reverse’ to mean ‘otherwise’ and not just ‘opposite’, we free our minds to explore any alternative to our present thinking model. This is why younger people are valuable mentors – they are less burdened by experience, and can think in ways that we (dare I say it) older types are trained to eschew. Moreover, getting away from the tyranny of age, the opposite of old doesn’t need to be young – it can be ‘new’. Innovation (remember from above) is the successful application of new ideas. We don’t need to be young to have new ideas – what we do often need is the young to give us permission to have new ideas, by virtue of their irrepressible impetus for change.

So, let us think in new ways about reverse mentoring. Let us gather around us young people who are curious, challenging, who even (if we can cope with it it) disagree, and let us be curious with them, challenge ourselves, and revel in the idea generation that disagreement can bring. Let us embrace reverse mentoring, even if only to show that we are not the Very Important People of old (pun intended), and that the 21st century version of the personal computer (AI, anyone?) holds no fears for us.

And a message for the young, too…

Future leaders are not only those who have yet to acquire a leadership role – they are leaders who have yet to acquire the skills they will need in future. And that means all of us. Reverse mentoring is a technique to leverage the aptitude – practical and theoretical – of all generations, to meet the emerging and infinitely variable challenges of the future.

Even an old dog can learn new tricks, if its mind remains young enough.


Written by John Mark Williams, CEO at The Institute of Leadership.


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