Pivot Post 4: Fan Question from Tracy McAbe: Reverse Mentorship

Ok, back on track with a day of recovery after a 3-post extravaganza on Tuesday. I apologize for the late posting today – everyone’s full tilt rockin’ client’s worlds and all.

In the introductory post for this series we linked you to the Pivot Conference agenda and asked if there were any sessions of particular interest. For responses we received, we said that we would attend the session of interest and devote a post to the topic. This post is for Tracy McAbe, who was interested in the session titled “A Case for Reverse Mentorship.” Here is Tracy’s question:

[Why I’m interested in] reverse mentorship: Two reasons.  Reason 1: it’s a beautiful, simple, elegant idea. Reason 2: We should do this here at The City. Reason 3: Okay, I said there were 2 reasons, but really there’s 3.  Because I’m writing a piece about the parallels between the immigrant experience in Canada and being a digital native (or not). I think there’s ageism and elitism at play here and it would be good to learn more. I’m a digital immigrant and the natives do not always treat me well. Their loss. Still, a fascinating dynamic.

Beauty knows no age. Old, Young, Ramsey or Doddsie.

Old? Young? You decide.

We like the way you think, Tracy. I’m going to start out with a few bulleted highlights from our notes and then Robbin and I will offer a few thoughts on the subject from our perspectives. If you’re interested in a certain aspect of reverse mentorship that we don’t cover, just let us know in the comments and we’ll address it.

Notes – “A Case for Reverse Mentorship” – Reverse mentorship pairs “experienced” senior marketers with digital natives who bring a different “experience” to the job. Speaker: Alexa Scordato, Community Manager, 2tor

  • Alexa (the speaker) is the quintessential digital native. her biggest fear is having a job that she hates – she is a millennial and says of her demographic: “we’re young, inexperienced, spoiled, and it’s all about us.”
  • The questions she is trying to answer are: Are senior executives wondering, ‘How do I work with this new group of employees? How do I embrace ‘social’? How do I embrace new technology?’ How do we embrace culture and adopt new technology into the workplace?
  • The media often gives millennials a bad rap (sense of entitlement, laziness, etc.)
  • Her first job out of college was as an executive assistant. She developed a two-way mentoring relationship with her boss – she was fascinated by cash-flow and EBITA and he by the strange new website called Twitter. She started by inviting him to talk to her about Wall Street Journal articles he found interesting and then encouraging him to put his thoughts on a blog.
  • Over the year they worked together, they wrote 50 blog posts together, she made his speaking engagements public on YouTube, and she showed him how to connect with people on Facebook.
  • “If the future of business is social, we can’t think about our organizations as a corporate ladder.”
  • “It can’t be us versus them (older vs. younger), we have to start pairing young digital natives with senior executives.”
  • Crowd question: how does this actually work? Answer: “It could literally be as simple as finding your entry level employees and carving out time for luncheons where there is time for senior executives and young employees to just talk.”
  • “The more time you invest in millennials as employees, the more likely they are to stick around.”
  • “If you believe in the concept of reverse mentorship, you have to actually let young people be decision makers in the company.”


Robbin’s thoughts:

On the subject of ageism and elitism: it comes from both sides of the fence. I have seen young people roll eyes at the oldest in the room and old people roll eyes at the young among us.

So WOW. Big hairy beast of a subject. I honestly have lots to say about it. And I feel in this rapid fire age of technical progress and change, it has to disappear. Somehow, someway.

I am lucky. At Brains on Fire we hire based on determination and talent and a sense of shared passion. That same tribe thing. NOT age. Or skin color or country of origin. I often remark that part of what I see as the secret sauce of our organization is admiration and respect for each others talents and differing points of view. Regardless of age or experience. But we live in a bubble sheltered by our size. In larger organizations, that same opportunity might not be possible as folks vie for better jobs and a longing to have their voice heard. Professional competition can be beautiful or ugly. Strange, huh?

Marketing by it’s very nature is a bit of a young people’s business. The hours are long. You have to constantly be learning. I can’t say that enough. I will roll my eyes at you no matter your age if you say “That is how it’s done. Or “social media is stupid.” Or “I don’t get it.”

I won’t lie. Eric gets frustrated with me and me with him. Largely because of differing styles of communications. Not our ages. But we always come back to respect and a shared desire to learn and grow from each other’s life experiences. Still can’t get him to let me go hiking with him and his friends tho’. (smiling).


My thoughts:

I agree with Robbin – it’s a big, hairy beast of a subject, and a crucially important one at that.

I think the tension between older, seasoned marketers and millennial digital natives arises because of several things (not an exhaustive list, just thoughts from experience):

Many in generation Y have grown up with technology – it’s a part of who we are. Quite literally, it is hard for millennials to imagine life without modern technology and the internet. Many have never written a research paper without the aid of online resources. Further, as the web has progressed it has affected our lives in increasing and deeper ways.

Now pair that with a generation who has seen the internet and technology change business in mind-bending ways and who can sometimes have a longer learning curve because they didn’t grow up with technology, but for whom the internet is also affecting their lives in increasing and deeper ways.

Now put the two in a conference room, mix in a few communication issues, lots of creativity, maybe a little sense of entitlement from the millennial and a dash of resistance to change from the executive, and you’ve got a pretty interesting situation on your hands.

Reverse mentorship has worked (not perfectly, mind you) at Brains on Fire precisely because of what Robbin said: “we always come back to respect and a shared desire to learn and grow from each other’s life experiences.” At Brains on Fire, I have always been told that my perspective is valued and encouraged to share it. By the same token, I have always held in my heart a deep respect (and admiration) for the brilliant minds in this place – that they would invite my thoughts is humbling.

I agree with Robbin that our experience is somewhat sheltered by our size, but I think Alexa hit the nail on the head when she suggested simply carving out time to spend together. No matter the size of the company, you have to start at the same place: an open dialogue, an extended hand, a genuine interest to learn. And, as a millennial, if the executives initiate the conversation, it means a lot more than you might think.

Tracy, it is very disappointing to hear that the digital natives have treated you badly, and I agree that it is their loss. Our bent towards entitlement and know-it-all-ism can be an ugly thing. But, as Robbin says, love is a circular transaction, and I’m excited to see how reverse mentorship plays out in your work place.

  • tracy

    Okay. I’ll try to keep it brief, though my brain is overflowing.
    Just when I thought I was a smarty pants, I find out that -once again – BOF is smartier pantsier. As evidenced by this post and the accompanying photos.
    I sound kinda lame (boo. hoo. digital natives do not treat me well.). And I was lame to forget that I may have done my own eye rolling (real or implied). Though, I’m not really an eye rolling kind of gal. Still.
    My work place rocks. The people rock. We do informal mentoring all the time. And some formal mentoring. Maybe it’s time for a formalized mentoring that involves social media. And maybe it’s time for me to put more effort into my social media experience.
    A couple of months ago I had to show a digital native how to use a bottle opener. Apparently he had never before encountered a non-twist beer cap. When I ask for more Show Me from the digital natives, I will remember the bottle opener episode. We’ve either been there or will be there. Thanks again for yet another ab fab post.

  • http://brainsonfire.com Eric Dodds


    You don’t sound lame at all! It’s a real experience of a real problem, and we’re so glad that you brought the issue to light. It could probably use a little more light.

    The bit about the bottle opener…I’m speechless, and you are a noble mentor. What an awesome story!

    As always, thanks for being a part of the conversation.


  • http://www.alexascordato.com Alexa Scordato

    Hi Eric,

    Just came across this post. Thanks for tuning into my session at the Pivot Conference and doing a great job of recapping it here. To your point, I’ve seen ageism and elitism come from both sides of the spectrum as well and wholeheartedly believe in somehow eliminating this ‘us versus them” mentality.

    Hope you had fun at the conference and found the other sessions worthwhile!


    Sorry you haven’t had the best experience with digital natives. I know that you’re not alone (and without knowing you, I can say with confidence as a digital native that you’re certainly not lame!). Good luck with your social media efforts. Whether you have a “reverse-mentor” or not, the fact that you even read blogs and comment on them already speaks volumes about how far ahead you are.