Reciprocal Mentoring Can Prove Beneficial to Young and Old Alike

Diverse Generations Have Much to Learn From Each Other

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Beth Ann Kaminkow
Beth Ann Kaminkow
Sixty years ago, the first TV ad was broadcast in the U.S., beginning the golden era of the traditional -- and now outmoded -- one-way approach that ushered in the growth of the advertising industry.

The foundation of advertising and marketing is now about conversations with consumers -- and it's time to stimulate those two-way conversations inside our agencies as well. Today, the best and most effective marketing is based on a reciprocal exchange. The traditional top-down mentoring relationship needs to be shelved as well in favor of reciprocal mentoring.

Never before have the diverse generations within the work force had so many unique competencies and strengths to offer each other. We are living in a time when a youthful understanding and comfort level with technology and emerging media/devices trumps, in some instances, years of experience and knowledge. Reciprocal mentoring offers a developmental bridge that narrows the divide and eases an organization's progression through change.

Many agencies have tried reverse mentoring in the past few years -- a good idea in principle, but fraught with the obvious reluctance of senior people openly accepting "development" from those born under the sign of the Mac. Despite that reluctance, in reciprocal mentoring both sides are giving and receiving, with the potential to create deep and respectful bonds.

So what are some factors to think about in building a successful program?

First, it might sound obvious, but we have to start by knowing where we want to end up. The primary benefit is to share knowledge up and down the talent chain. Younger employees -- the digital natives -- have a different sensibility, literacy and competency from older, more experienced generations in the work force. The latter, however, have just that: a more experienced, seasoned background, a deeper understanding of business cycles and fundamentals and a greater breadth of exposure to traditional as well as nontraditional media.

Next, consider the structure of the reciprocal mentoring approach. In my experience, formalized mentoring programs in general do not yield effective developmental relationships. In any productive relationship, there is an organic and self-motivated element that is necessary. I prefer setting up the idea, sharing the goal and vision, and inspiring people to seek out these relationships -- or to formalize ones that are naturally surfacing. In our collaborative work environment, this is simply giving a name and energy to something that should begin taking shape on its own.

Then it's important to build in some type of method for feedback. When pairing two generations, there's always the risk of the older generation dominating the conversation. The two sides have to agree to check egos and timidity at the virtual door. And while the proliferation of technology is responsible for creating the need for reciprocal mentoring, the give-and-take must have a strong face-to-face component -- no hiding behind a keyboard.

Finally, consider taking the reciprocal-mentoring approach outside the agency and introducing it to clients. I've seen clients take young agency people under their wings to "teach them the ropes" of their business while becoming more open to learning and receiving insight on the digital and social landscape from these newcomers to the industry. This is a great way of getting over ageism issues that can occur between agency and client.

The technological change taking place has created a new playing field. It's the great equalizer that mandates everyone's involvement in order to build and execute truly integrated programs based on relevant ideas. If we do not embrace this concept, we could create huge divides within our companies.

The give and take inherent in the reciprocal-mentoring relationship is the new currency of collaboration, integration and cooperation. There is also nothing more inspiring to an individual than feeling a sense of purpose and value in one's contributions.

So set those rookies free to find their veterans and let the fun -- and learning -- begin.

Beth Ann Kaminkow is president-chief operating officer of TracyLocke.
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