What fire chiefs gain from reverse mentoring

With the right boundaries and expectations, young firefighters have a lot to teach the old guard


Most people are familiar with the concept of mentoring. This is a practice where older, more experienced people in an organization provide guidance and counsel to younger, less experienced individuals. In most cases, mentoring is a relationship that lasts for an extended period of time — months into years.

There is no question that having a good mentor is huge benefit in any profession. The fire service has long embraced mentoring on an informal level, and some departments have even developed programs where mentors are formally assigned to newer firefighters.

In recent years, some organizations have expanded this traditional approach to mentoring to include what is known as reverse mentoring. In this practice, the mentoring relationship is turned upside down, and newer, younger workers act at advisers and confidantes to those who are older and more experienced.

Jack Welch, retired CEO of General Electric, was one of the first business leaders to embrace the concept of reverse mentoring. Since then, many more companies have followed, including Wall Street investment firms, insurance companies and manufacturing and software companies.

Matter of perspective
The benefits of reverse mentoring are substantial. Younger workers bring different perspectives and skills to the workplace.

They are usually more technically adept, they communicate differently, and they see the world and the organization from the standpoint of someone who is building a career from the ground up, rather than as one who is winding down.

Younger people have educations that reflect the most current trends and knowledge in a field, and they have energy and desire to make their mark in the organization.

Reverse mentoring is not a practice that has been widely embraced by the fire service, however. In a profession where traditionally "new kids" are expected to do what they are told and otherwise keep their mouths shut, sometimes for many years, reverse mentoring goes against basic cultural norms.

This is a shame, because silencing new, young voices comes with a price. Of course you don't want the probationary firefighter coming to work and telling everyone what to do during the first year on the job. But that scenario is not what real mentoring is about.

Seizing opportunity
Mentoring is a relationship of trust and respect. It allows both parties to have a voice, and it recognizes that different people have different interests, insights, and areas of expertise. Only when all members feel that their voices are heard and valued will the organization be using its full potential.

I remember a story I heard from a metropolitan fire chief a few years back. The department had been struggling with finding appropriate software for its fire prevention division.

They purchased several products but none of them met the specific needs that they had. They had spent a lot of time and money on the quest and still everyone was frustrated with the results.

This conversation was taking place among high-ranking officers and happened to be witnessed by a firefighter who had less than one year on the job. Tentatively, he raised his hand and said, "Before I was hired here last year, I was a senior software engineer and designer. I can write that software for you if you want."

Clear boundaries
In some organizations, this offer might have been ignored. But in this progressive department, the chief immediately saw the value of this man's skills. He was reassigned to a team that developed and implemented the new software, a job that took nearly a year.

In this capacity, the new firefighter was in a position to mentor others to develop and maintain the program. Along the way, he maintained his status as new firefighter and continued to do required training and certification.

Allowing for the possibility of reverse mentoring creates a situation where newer firefighters can increase their stake in the organization at an early stage. It does not undermine the traditional hierarchical structure of the fire service, but does emphasize the importance of using all resources available and creating a respectful environment for doing so.

Clear expectations are critical for reverse mentoring to succeed. The input of newer firefighters must be sought in a structured way and professional boundaries maintained.

Reverse mentoring is not about becoming buddies with your supervisor. It is about providing space for a conversation to take place that might not otherwise happen, and that would benefit the organization overall.

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