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How Mentorship Goes Both Ways - Management and Employees Should Learn from Each Other

For many reasons, I generally believe in the concept of the 5 Minute Mentor more than the traditional concept of mentorship. It may be possible, but it’s seldom practical or effective for a knowledgeable person to take someone’s hand over a long time period to guide them toward a successful future. I also believe that mentorship is often a two-way street.

Managers and employees fare best when they learn from each other. The following four principles explain how to encourage an environment where learning flows freely in all directions.

1. A good relationship drives mutual learning

When you talk with your employees, does it usually seem like a monologue? You can’t create relationships from the podium in a lecture hall. Even in school, students learn best from the teachers who interact with them in more friendly and personal ways.

Employees don’t always freely open up around department managers, much less officers of the company. However, a closer relationship empowers your personnel to open up with questions and ideas that can make a real difference to the business. Draw them out, if you need to; some general chit-chat or a joke or two creates a pleasant and informal work environment that opens the doors to mutual learning.

2. Information flows both ways

Most teachers would tell you that they learn as much from their students as the students learn from them. You can do the same, as long as you are prepared to catch the words of wisdom that unexpectedly emanate from your employees.

Your team is the front line of your business. They see issues from a perspective that you don’t share. So, while you clearly recognize that your tax accounting service undergoes bedlam during the early months of each year, your natural response might be to require extensive overtime or turn down business. Employees who express concerns about overwork and exhaustion may have different solutions.

Take heed when you hear comments like, “Some of us are better at talking to clients, but other employees excel at detailed use of the tax software.” They may be teaching you about the value of specialization and how to use new approaches to turn the work around more efficiently.

3. Questions enhance everyone’s understanding

It might be a cliché, but there’s really no such thing as a stupid question. At the very least, questions raised when you try to impart knowledge are prime indicators that your explanations need to be clearer.

Just as important, questions often create lightbulb moments. You explain the seven steps to select a customer to create an invoice, and your trainee asks if it’s possible to right click a client group and get to the client in two steps. In an instant, you recognize the employee as a shortcut expert and you learn a new technique.

4. Mutual learning is seldom formal

The term mentorship brings to mind a formal relationship that requires a significant dedicated time commitment and effort from both parties. This formal approach to learning may work well in the classroom, but businesses offer a contextual opportunity for everyone to learn more quickly.

Your entire team exchanges information at any time or place, whether in project meetings or sharing insights informally in the company kitchen. In fact, more relaxed atmospheres often induce the best learning opportunities.

I know someone who thought that her last day as a word processing temp had arrived when a top executive overheard her complaining to a co-worker in the lunchroom about some company shortcomings. Instead, that enlightened executive sat down at the table to discuss ideas that would make the company more efficient — and then made arrangements to hire her on full-time in a managerial role. Both people continued to learn a great deal from each other over many years without ever using the term “mentor”.

Smart people know what they don’t know.

You may be the CEO or other top brass at a highly-regarded company, but a key to your success has probably been related to mutual learning. The wisest people recognize that there’s always more to learn and new knowledge comes from many unexpected sources.


4 Tips on Mentoring Employees for Everyone’s Benefit

5 Steps for Creating a Mentoring Program for your Employees

About the author

Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at She also has an action figure made in her likeness.