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Published 04 March 2024
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Reverse Mentoring: How Younger Staff Can Help Boost Your Business

From increased engagement on social media to future-proofing your brand, we explore five ways younger workers can strengthen your business.

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Business owners are increasingly recognising that students, apprentices or recent graduates could deliver as great of an impact as more mature and experienced employees. Just in a different way.

Being ‘digitally native’, highly entrepreneurial and unencumbered by years of past experience enables Gen Z workers (those born between 1997 and 2012) to inject the skills, energy and new ideas that small businesses need to overcome current challenges and create opportunities for future growth. 

Whether you want to upskill your existing workforce, refresh long-established ways of working, or cultivate a more diverse and innovative team, we explore five ways your company could benefit from investing in some younger employees.

1. Fuel your fire with fresh perspectives 

Fresh perspectives and a willingness to challenge the status quo are key to unlocking innovation, and it’s these traits that young people have in bucketloads. A combination of youthful energy, enthusiasm and determination can also provide the spark that can ignite the creativity of an entire team.

The positive impact of hiring ‘rookies’ has been explored by researcher, lecturer and CEO Liz Wiseman, who says what we already know can sometimes get in the way of discovering what we need to learn. In her best-selling book Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, Wiseman illustrates how advantageous it can be to bring in someone inexperienced who is curious, adaptable and willing to learn. This youthful attitude can rub off on colleagues, inspiring them to keep learning, too, boosting motivation and skill acquisition throughout the company.

This is how reverse mentoring works: Instead of seeing knowledge transfer as a one-directional process – with mature employees teaching younger staff – businesses that seek the insights and perspectives of younger people are capitalising on knowledge shared between employees from different generations, backgrounds and career stages. 

2. Let them lead

Given the rapidly changing business landscape and evolution of technology, the energy, adaptability and risk appetite of leaders are becoming more important than their experience. Empowering junior members of staff and creating intergenerational leadership can therefore create a competitive advantage. 

Sport psychologist and author Sam Kotadia is a director and psychology lead at Win the Day, a social enterprise that helps students grasp real-world opportunities through entrepreneurial training. Kotadia made his young trainee Jazper ‘Jaz’ Peacey, who is the managing director of Win the Day, a shareholder with roughly  50% of shares in the venture after being impressed with his courage and sense of adventure. 

While he recognises that a young person in a position of responsibility will inevitably make some mistakes, Kotadia believes that a youthful approach can simplify decision-making. 

“We’re overwhelmed with information and ideas and theories and models [but] actually the simplest solution is usually the correct one. And I think young people will have a knack of just calling it out,” he says. 

3. Show up on social media 

Since the 1990s, companies have recognised that younger staff members may know more than their bosses when it comes to technology. Now, experienced employees are turning to younger staff for guidance on how to increase brand awareness, drive traffic and engage new audiences on social media.

Given how difficult it is for small businesses to build traction on social media, the energy and hunger that a young person brings to the task is what makes them so successful at it. 

“If you haven’t got that energy, then social media doesn’t really work. You’ve got to keep showing up and producing,” Kotadia says. “It lends itself perfectly for a young person to exploit,” he added.

4. Diversify your team 

Research shows more diverse teams outperform those with less diversity, and widening your team’s age range can positively impact company culture and performance.

Tech start up Multiverse recognises this and was set up to help organisations become more representative of the communities they serve. Using predictive technology, it matches school leavers with employers such as Google, Facebook and Depop, providing opportunities for young people from different backgrounds to supercharge their careers in data and tech.

And it’s not just big businesses that are diversifying their workforce while helping students kickstart their careers. NerdWallet spoke to Patricia Marks, CEO of SBA Worldwide, a community interest company based in Somerset. It has been actively recruiting young people into digital roles.

“It made us address things that matter to young people that don’t matter so much to us, and the other way round … they’re challenging our norms about how we see things,” Marks says.

As well as the cultural benefits of having a diverse workforce, the combination of reverse mentoring and diverse hiring can make it easier for small businesses to enter new markets, Marks explains, adding that it gave them the confidence they needed to go into unchartered territory.

5. Future-proof your business

Entry-level employees can add value from day one, but their connection to contemporary trends and up-to-date skills also help enterprises prepare for the future. 

By bringing in young talent and adopting their forward-thinking mindset, small businesses can avoid falling behind the times. 

Having recently appointed an 18-year-old adviser, Marks is thankful for the way a teenager on her team has challenged the thinking of her senior colleagues. 

“She’ll just walk across something that we’ve been doing [for 10 years and] say ‘that doesn’t make sense’,” explains Marks, adding that although something has worked up until now, it may not serve the business well to continue doing the same thing into the future.

Hiring an apprentice is not a ‘quick fix’ solution to a short-term skills gap, though. Instead, businesses need to see apprenticeships as a long-term investment and factor young people into their succession planning. “If you really see spark and enthusiasm in a young person, just back them,” Kotadia says. Rather than thinking “I could get a year out of [an apprentice]’ … think 10 years, think 15 years, think long term not  short term.”

As you consider the skills and diversity of your workforce and the readiness of your business for the future, it could be time to let your youngest employees lead the way. Sometimes we need someone new and under-qualified to see what everyone else has missed.

Image source: Getty Images

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