Reverse mentoring: not just for tech skills

Insights from a younger generation: 5 communication techniques that work

Reverse mentoring has been around for quite a while. It tends to be associated with topics such as technology, social media and current trends, and the premise is that older executives need to be open to learning (ie. about new technologies) from the younger generation joining the workforce.
I recently had an accidental lesson in the value of reverse mentoring and it had nothing to do with learning about tech. Instead it was about my stock-in-trade: communications. What I learned is that young people can help us to look afresh at a topic that we think we know well. Through the eyes of young people unencumbered by 2×2 matrices, mindmaps and theory, we can be reminded of the basics that perhaps we take for granted or have forgotten why they matter.

Learning from real-world experience
My company recently sponsored a sixth-form student, Josh, who had volunteered* to join a school trip to Sri Lanka to help a community still recovering from the tsunami of 2004. The sponsorship deal was: in return for money to support the expedition, Josh would write an article for me about his volunteering experience, specifically on the topic of communications.
What resulted was rather unexpected: he produced a 5-point framework of communications best practice (see below).

Each point is not new and not rocket science. However, together they provide a reminder that real communication – not just talking at someone but really getting your message across – is less about what you say and more about how you say it. These are simple communication techniques that he’s demonstrated work in practice and that we should all remember whether we’re engaging customers, employees or colleagues.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
Josh and his volunteer colleagues learned through their experiences in Sri Lanka about how to communicate when you strip away the comfort-blanket of a shared language. The volunteers found themselves having to teach a community who spoke no English; and worse, they had none of the familiar tech on which to access Google Translate or YouTube “How to teach English” videos.

When two parties use the same language, it’s tempting to rely on the words to do the communicating for us. It’s easy to forget about other factors that may create communications barriers: channel, trust, motivation. Apparently it was George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’. Getting the message right is clearly essential but getting the message across requires other factors as well. As Josh says in his article, “Language is optional”.

What’s in it for me?
“Climb the ladder, but bring someone with you” was a plea from RICS President Elect Amanda Clack in a recent presentation about winning the war for talent. Mentoring in the workplace can be a valuable way of sharing skills and insights for leadership and career development.
Art Markman suggests that mentors themselves learn through mentoring. “When you teach something to another person, you discover all of the details that you don’t completely understand yourself”. I didn’t set out to teach Josh basic communications skills. I set him a challenge to think about what he’d learned. Much like reverse mentoring when senior executives learn about social networking from millennials, I’ve gained from what Josh has worked out for himself. To mis-quote Mr Markman, when you help another person learn, you discover all of the details that you’re overlooking.

Josh’s 5 tips for effective communication:

  1. What’s in it for me?
    When there is an incentive for your audience to engage and participate, it’s much easier to get your message across.
  2. Keep it simple, keep it clear.
    Communication doesn’t have to be complicated – “liberal use of high-fives cannot be underestimated” (certainly with 5-year olds – a different technique might be appropriate in your workplace!).
  3. Build trust.
    Finding a common point of interest can provide a basis on which to connect with someone and start a dialogue.
  4. Be flexible.
    Choose a method of communication that suits your audience, not you. A medium that enables people to participate in the dialogue will encourage engagement.
  5. Language is optional.
    It is not needed to really connect with someone. If both parties are interested in what is going on, both can easily understand it without a word being exchanged.

*Volunteer Sri Lanka (VSL)
The organisation that Josh volunteered to help is Volunteer Sri Lanka. The article that Josh wrote in exchange for sponsorship provides an insight into the issues that the community there is still grappling with, and a refreshingly cheerful account of finding fulfillment in seemingly mundane work.

Fran Bodley-Scott

Fran is a business communications consultant specialising in customer and stakeholder relationship marketing. She started out in engineering and product development before moving into marketing and business development. Fran brings a blend of marketing experience, system thinking and creative design to client projects. She is a thought leader in applying marketing thinking inside the organisation and is passionate about improving business effectiveness and efficiency through relationship marketing.

If you are interested in talking with Fran about your project, please get in touch.