I teach college students so, according to the trend of “reverse mentoring,” I should engage my students as “reverse mentors” and become a social media genius! It’s true I learn daily from my students–which is one of the reasons I enjoy my work–and I believe we are all born with purpose and genius. Research has demonstrated that reverse mentoring programs result in both benefits and barriers. However, I fear the hype of reverse mentoring, in the way that it is currently being defined and discussed, particularly positioning all millennials as Saviors of Social Media, will leave both parties unsatisfied. Instead of “reverse mentoring,” I encourage organizations to consider purposeful pairing.
The introduction of reverse mentoring in American organizations is credited to Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, and its popularity continues today. A recent article in Fortune claimed “…Students are more quickly becoming the teachers as companies going through the millennial workplace revolution are getting their 18 to 35-year-old employees to teach generation Xers and baby boomers a thing or two about integrating tools like social media and crowd sourcing into their modus operandi.” It also quoted a generation expert who added, “Millennials are a generation that have grown up with a lot of technology. They’re very tech savvy. … They know all these things that might not be quite as easy for older generations.”
It’s true that today’s college students (most of whom were born in the mid 90s) are comfortable with Facebook, Snapchat and other social media tools. Yet it is because of their extreme comfort with social media, they tend not to think critically about social media.
If organizations are looking to bolster their social media presence, it is important that they first consider the strategy. Only research and analysis can answer those questions that are key to producing an effective social media strategy: Why does the organization want to engage in social media? Who are they trying to reach? How can we create and provide content that is compelling to our intended audience and fits the organization’s mission and goals? What social media platforms are preferred by our intended audience for specific products? When is the audience most receptive to receiving messages and from whom? Who are credible influencers to the audience on that particular platform? What level of disclosure and sharing is the norm for that audience on that channel?
Although most college students navigate social media well, they also navigate it from the perspective of young adult college student–not like new moms, or cancer patients, or prospective new car buyers, or aspiring business owners. One example of a strategy that failed to understand its audience was unveiled by the now defunct Fresh and Easy grocery chain. The “f&easy” (sounds like “f___’n easy”) campaign appeared to be developed by a social media team blinded by their rush to be attention-getting and viral-worthy, and yet failed to connect with their loyal customers – moms. One offended customer wrote on the store’s Facebook page, “Very tacky. You can take me off your list of loyal customers now.”
Being able to use social media and strategize social media are two separate skills. Too often “millennial” has become code for “social media expert” and “reverse mentoring” programs are being implemented to beef up the organization’s use of social media and technology. Too often these ventures produce a new set of social media accounts with no sustainable strategy for growth and development and no infrastructure in place to respond to the two-way conversations the new social media accounts generate.
My concept of purposeful pairing is not to discount the value millennials can provide with their social media dexterity, but to recognize that if reverse mentoring programs are being implemented primarily to up-skill employees on social media and technology in hopes of enhancing the organization’s social media presence, the program is insufficient.
Purposeful pairing, however, advocates pairing employees based on a pre-determined outcome for the organization, so each party is valued for bringing something to the table (whereas “reverse mentoring,” shifts the power and, in doing so, may de-value the mentee).
For example, if an organization wants to enhance the organization’s social media presence, they can pair employees with social media dexterity and communication research and analysis skills, and with employees who have a deep understanding of the organization, its mission, brand, goals and key publics (regardless of their demographic category).
By valuing both contributors, purposeful pairing has greater potential to be satisfying to participants and the organization.