Making mentoring magic


I recently had two experiences with people at opposite ends of the age-spectrum which made me stop and think. We all know about reverse mentoring (if you don’t, read my article Mentor Matchmaking), but how many of us actively seek to set these meaningful relationships up?

My wise encounter

This is the story of my revaluation on a bus. I was running through my extensive (isn’t it always?) to-do list, when a man of around 85-years-old sat down next to (and slightly on top of) me.

After a few minutes I discovered his name was Jay, he was travelling to the hospital and he’d got on the wrong bus. The route would still take him to his destination but he’d decided that he wanted to talk some more to me.

He said: “Would you like to make the journey go a little quicker Anna?”

Of course, I said yes.

He suggested that we can ask each other important questions; if I answered correctly, I’d receive £5, but if I was wrong he’d get £500. If he was right he’d get £500 and if wrong, we’d call it quits. I agreed in theory – fully aware that I was set up never to win £500 and he’d never part with a penny.

He started. “If the moon is at its highest point in the sky, how far away is earth?” I didn’t know. He was already £500 up. He asked, “If a three legged animal goes up a hill but comes down with four legs, what animal is it?” I didn’t know. It was a doomed strategy. I let him know I was nearing the end of my journey and he grabbed my arm and explained the point of the questions: “Young people often underestimate older people, Anna.”

Let that be a lesson. I wasn’t supposed to know the answers; there was never £500 at stake. It was demonstrating the art of being listened to. Taking carefully constructed sentences and making a stranger stop and think.

My magic encounter

I’m sitting in front of my friend’s toddler and she stares right into my face and says. “My eyes are special.”

“Oh!” I say, “Why’s that?”

“Because I can’t see in the dark,” she says. Adding, “You should never trust people who eat tuna sandwiches.”

And there you have it. The door into a world where everything is reasonable. Her eyes were magic because of their inability to share the world with her in the cover of darkness and tuna was bad, well just because.

In the space of a month I learnt how to capture someone’s imagination, and keep it, from two people who are both wise and magic in their own rights, at very different stages of their lives.

How do you translate this into a traditional work environment? With reverse mentoring.

The longer you work for an organisation, the more you know and the less you need to learn, right? No. Not anymore.

Young workers just entering the workplace have exactly the skills and expertise that their more established colleagues need to know. Think social media, emerging customer habits and even technical skills like coding. Intelligent teams know that top-down learning is outdated.

I’d like to see reverse mentoring expand into the social environments outside of work, helping us all build skills and bridge generational gaps.

What can the 28-year-old learn from the elderly man on the bus who uses language as his tool? Imagine the depth of perspective a senior executive reaching retirement could share with a graduate starter. And even the toddler with magic eyes, wouldn’t we all like to exhibit enchantment like that?

Picture citation: Maiara Bolsson CC BY 2.0