New Leadership Tactic: Learn from Your Junior Staff

Younger employees know more than the latest music hits and sports scores. Follow their lead to learn tactical skills and develop a big-picture mindset.

I’ve always proudly told my mom that our relationship is mutually beneficial. Sure, she graciously mentors me on what to eat, wear, read, say, cook, buy, do (I could go on), but the only reason she knows every lyric to “Uptown Funk” and every detail of Teresa Giudice’s life in prison is because of me. Mutually beneficial.

Jokes aside, there are great benefits to reverse mentorship, and leading companies are making it a formal part of their learning and development programs. I interviewed James Kenigsberg, chief technology officer of 2U Inc., a cloud-based SaaS provider for colleges and universities, to find out why he believes mentorship with a junior employee is more valuable than looking up to a traditional mentor higher in rank. Below are edited excerpts of our interview.

Let’s talk about Gen Y and mentorship. You’ve mentioned before that companies can benefit by using junior employees for mentorship. How so?

Kenigsberg: No matter your position at a company, learning and education should never stop —whether that means picking things up from peers at work, learning from others at meetups or online forums, or seeking out relevant courses or conferences. And while junior employees may still have a lot to learn, they’re experiences in the trenches — from training to being managed — will open up a wealth of insight and new skills to their executive mentee. The perspective you’ll gain will allow you to take a deeper look at yourself as a manager, with a better understanding of how your employees work every day and hopefully teach you how to use new products and latest developments around your current technology stack. Learning how to create a better work atmosphere or improve management style is just as important to develop as the hard skills required to actually do the work.

What’s Gen Y’s benefit from this?

Kenigsberg: Millennials benefit from this type of relationship because they aren’t just learning from you, or sharing with you the skills they have developed, but they also see the bigger picture, especially when an idea they have brought to your attention is materialized and executed. Not only does this show them how to think more high level, but it also encourages them and reminds them that their jobs and tactical work are important and impactful.

What benefits does having Gen Y employees have for more senior leaders? How can junior employees help more experienced employees evolve?

Kenigsberg: The benefits are two-fold: learning new skills, and learning how to better support the team. When working with a junior mentor — if you set aside time for a meeting, or casually stop by their desk — ask them how they are tackling a specific project, have them show you a new process they’ve learned or latest tool that they are using to be more effective. Because millennials are elbow-deep in tactical work, they often discover new and improved ways of handling projects — and by learning from them, you develop a better sense of how things work, and how to manage and support your team.

James Kenigsberg, CTO of 2U, Inc.
James Kenigsberg, CTO of 2U, Inc.

Also, it’s important to point out that by actively engaging with your junior employees, you develop concrete communication and tighter relationship that enables you to be a better manager, and help them be better employees, and sooner reach milestones.

What can companies do that have a difficult time relaying this message to their employees? How can they create the type of culture that allows for this type of development and collaboration?

Kenigsberg: There doesn’t need to be a formal process to choosing junior employees to meet with, or scheduling sit down meetings. I, personally, look for people who are hungry and passionate, regardless of their position. It really only takes 5-10 minutes to stop by their desk, say hello, ask them what they are working on and how — it’s a very minimal time investment from the manager, and gives the junior employee a moment to shine and offer insights and updates. If management can’t carve out time to develop these relationships with junior employees, then they are doing a disservice to the entire company, both business and morale.

Learning is continual — it is never finished — and it comes from everywhere … junior employees included. When you are green, you grow; and, when you are ripe, you rot. By staying engaged with your junior workforce, and embracing the bilateral mentoring benefits, you’ll maintain a fresh perspective that will ultimately benefit your own career as well as your overall business mission.