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Cross Mentoring:
one person
sharpens another

The practice of having workers invest in relationships across demographics and tenure can have a transformational effect on your organization

February 26, 2020

“…a wise executive also knows that they don’t know everything and fresh new ideas matter.”

If you read on the internet like I do, you’ll see that there’s a wide array of opinions about the multigenerational workforce. Some say this is the first time we’ve seen five generations operating in the same workforce but I would argue, that not entirely accurate. For as long as I’ve been working there’s always been new college graduates coming into the workforce, those headed out into retirement – and a lot of people in between. JLL has at least four generations represented – Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Gen X (1965-1976), Millennials (1977-1997) and Gen Z (after 1997). Some companies, maybe even ours, have a fifth generation: Traditionalists, born before 1946.

I will tell you that demographic diversity is a good thing. Here’s why you should embrace, encourage and engage it.

New ideas matter

Successful companies don’t operate in a vacuum. By that, I mean that top-down thinking can’t be the singular path to innovation and success in a company. Yes, seasoned executives have experience and knowledge, but a wise executive also knows that they don’t know everything and fresh new ideas matter. 

“As iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another.”

Like the captain of a ship, a great CEO can only steer a good course if he has access to the best instruments, up-to-date information and innovative perspectives. Where does that information come from? On a ship, it comes from all around – from the seasoned sonar operator, from the junior seaman navigating by the stars, from the accomplished weatherman at NOAA, from the elderly local pilot who is going to steer you through the narrows, from the eyes of the senior officer scanning the horizon from the bridge.

That’s why having a multigenerational workforce is so valuable. Each one may interpret information slightly differently, but together as a team they communicate the information so the captain can get the job done.

Generations think differently. An idea generated and germinated by a Gen Z may not ever have crossed the mind of a Baby Boomer. If you are a Baby Boomer, is it better to dismiss that idea right off the bat just because you don’t really comprehend it? Isn’t it worth a second thought? I’d argue the latter. If you don’t believe me, ask BMW.

Cross Mentoring

We all know that mentoring – the process of having executives, managers or experienced employees teach younger staff how to do a job and how to navigate their careers – is a valuable investment of time for the young person being mentored. But it can also be incredibly valuable to a mentor as well.

Numerous studies have shown that ‘reverse mentoring’ – the practice of having younger workers invest in relationships with senior staff – can have a transformational effect on the organization. So, think how much greater an effect Cross Mentoring might have – creating a mentorship environment in which we all learn from each other. As iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another.

Empowering younger employees through a Cross Mentoring program also has another important benefit. It has been shown to improve employee retention and longevity. It makes sense. Employees asked to Cross Mentor are likely to feel more valued within the organization. They may even see a path forward and feel inspired through their interactions with each other that they may not have seen within a more traditional mentorship program. In an era where ‘recruit and retain’ is the mantra, Cross Mentoring can only help. Just ask, Jack Welch.

Gen Z is mobile native

While previous generations have watched mobile technology transpire and expand, Gen Z will be the first generation to see (and use) smartphones from their day of birth. In general, younger generations are more tech-adept. This makes them arguably more valuable to the organization in the long run than older peers who merely accept or even resist tech. But technology advances rapidly and sometimes users get left behind. Yes, if you sent a paper fax in the last three years, I could be talking about you.

Technology has its downsides. Just look at what happened to UK international money transfer company Travelex in January. Hackers installed ransomware on the company’s computer system, disabling it for almost a month. During that time, employees were forced to calculate foreign exchange rates using pen and paper. That must have instantly leveled the playing field among the multigenerational workforce.

Cross Mentoring platforms turbo charge the multigenerational workforce and can provide some equilibrium between the new and old school ways of doing things. That’s not a bad thing. Just ask the Iowa Democratic Party.

Flexibility has benefits

The multigenerational workforce skilled in Cross Mentoring can be a boon for the workplace too. Some real estate executives spend endless hours agonizing over which layout will appeal to today’s worker. Should we break down the office walls and be open-plan? Should we have more drop-in desks and fewer designated spaces? How much of the floor space will be communal and collaborative? How much outdoor space do we need? All legitimate questions, but let me posit that they all may be a little easier to answer in a multigenerational workplace, where older workers may desire different workplace features than their Gen Z co-worker – and vice versa.

What the Cross Mentoring dynamic is telling companies, I believe, is that people (like office space) should be flexible and movable, with the ability to be broken down and reassembled to follow teams and projects rather than remain static for years. Yes, some static space is needed – a lunch room, perhaps even a C-suite – but companies should be dynamic and their workspaces should be too. Feel free to ask me, Rich Branning, or my mentoree/mentor Chris Owusu.