Reverse mentoring can level up digital skills and retain Gen Z

Russell Haworth is chief executive officer at NBS

Have you tried reverse mentoring? For me, it has been a game-changer. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about the way young people view their careers. I’d go so far as to say reverse mentoring will be essential in the construction sector in the coming years if we are to recruit, develop and retain the vast numbers needed to keep our industry functioning.

The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) calculates that an additional 266,000 workers will be required to meet UK construction demand by 2026. Walking in the shoes of young people experiencing our working world for the first time will help us create the kinds of workplace environments, values, tech tools and practices they can bear.

With today’s college leavers turned off by construction’s reputation for the three Ds – dull, dirty and dangerous – anything we can do to improve things should be explored.

Why reverse mentor?

The premise is simple: business leaders take stock of valuable lessons from those in the early stages of their careers. The results are powerful. A recent report by the Harvard Business Review noted how reverse mentoring results in “increased retention of millennials” and improved “sharing of digital skills”.

“The tech-savvy generation are not called ‘digital natives’ for nothing”

I would agree that the biggest win from doing this in construction is younger colleagues levelling-up the digital skills of long-standing team members.

The tech-savvy generation are not called ‘digital natives’ for nothing. They will have ideas on how to work quicker and smarter. Often, it can involve small changes. New widgets such as IFTTT (derived from the ‘if this, then that’ programming conditional statement), for example, are helping businesses to streamline how platforms interact for a less fractured approach.

This perspective is nothing new to the budding next generation of workers. Whether it’s banking, online shopping, emails or diary platforms, they are fearlessly familiar with seamlessly-integrated tech. Being open to their new ideas will help keep 100-year-old construction firms relevant and up to date.

Enhanced recruitment and engagement

Clearly, reverse-mentoring schemes are a powerful way to increase employee engagement and inspire junior employees by giving them a voice. When mentoring a senior colleague, newbies might even influence board-level thinking and instigate real change.

I’ve heard of reverse-mentoring schemes where college leavers have unearthed smart new ways of attracting recruits. You can tap into the best tone of voice to deploy in recruitment marketing and the appropriate channels to reach target audiences. Young people engage with each other through Instagram, videos and funny memes, so is it time to make use of these to attract and hire our next cohort of workers?

This feeds into the company’s approach to internal comms. Do junior employees find the company newsletter interesting? What would engage them further? Harnessing tools such as social media channels are a great way to reflect workplace culture.

The days of stuffy, serious offices are losing favour with the next generation, who want to feel they are joining an upbeat team and a business with a sense of community. Listening to those who are more familiar with newer approaches to communicating can help push your company in the right direction. I’ve seen so many companies fail on this point due to ignorance – sometimes it pays to listen to those who know best.

It’s a two-way street

The mentee can, of course, give valuable input to the junior mentor in this relationship. A seasoned executive can instil a sense of how momentous our sector is. We are literally building the future and shaping lives. Sustainability, social improvement and technological innovation are all intrinsic to construction, but the awesomeness of what we do isn’t clearly spelt out all that often.

“Being involved with building a better world is rare and powerful”

Young people need a purpose. They are keen to feel that their work has meaning and is not just about making a profit – that it’s about doing something positive for society and the environment. Being involved with building a better world is rare and powerful. Surely that makes construction a fantastic career choice? Reverse mentoring provides a good opportunity to hammer that theme home.

On a practical level, if an employee is new to the working world, there may be unwritten workplace norms that they’re simply unaware of. For veteran workers, these are often second nature, but in some cases people will not know unless you tell them. This could involve conversations about what is acceptable in business life. What type of language should we use and is this different when talking to clients?

Sometimes younger colleagues can advise on appropriate word choice too. Formalities over email and when answering phones may all be new ground. Exploring this territory together can easily remove any future faux pas that might otherwise occur.

Mistakes to avoid

There are some caveats to ensure your reverse-mentoring programme is successful. Firstly, it is important that senior staff remain open-minded and leave preconceived judgements at the door. It’s about listening and taking new information on board. Only by doing this can you soak up a fresh perspective.

Secondly, younger members of staff might be unfamiliar with some of the industry jargon you use day-to-day. Be mindful of this when communicating as this can create barriers, especially if an employee is too shy to ask questions for fear of looking ill-informed.

Thirdly, prioritise relationships. One of the main failures with mentoring programmes is that senior staff don’t fully commit to them. A cancelled session here and there, and things can quickly fall by the wayside. Signposting specific times to meet and catch up can help to keep things on track.

Investing in this type of mentorship can only lead to better understanding in leadership, delivered from those in the business who are seeing our sector with fresh eyes.

On a final note, reverse mentoring is also great for improving organisational sensitivity. It is important that business leaders have an awareness of the challenges people from LGBT or ethnic minority communities might face. Reverse mentees can explain what barriers they have faced and this can often be enlightening.  It can enable bosses to retool things, so that everyone can succeed.

The world is changing. Reverse mentoring allows everyone to keep up.

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