Interns are adding value to companies, non-profits and the public sector around the world this summer. At Vancity, one of the things that we want from this experience is an exchange of ideas – put another way, we want “reverse mentorship” and “professional reciprocity” between our interns and regular employees. This is not a new concept, but for many people learning from twentysomethings and listening to their advice isn’t the easiest thing to do. Especially for middle managers like me or senior leaders like the guy who wrote this rather self-serving blog post about how interns are lucky to learn from the career stories of executives. Young people have a lot to teach leaders, so an awesome summer intern, Ashley Dhaliwal, and I collaborated on this article in an effort to share how to learn from your summer interns:


Ashley’s take

One reason the leaders are so receptive to meeting with the interns is because they are curious about us. By simply asking an intern “what is your experience with our organization?” you will gain insights into our very influential demographic and learn how to engage us as employees and customers. Youth are your future colleagues and your current customers. We might move quickly and work differently than you do and our experiences are different, not better or worse because we haven’t works as long. Take the opportunity to learn from us too!

John’s take

Great leaders admit mistakes, learn from failure, graciously welcome criticism, and know that there is much to learn from every person in their community. According to HBR’s Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, humility is the leadership trait that makes employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included and work more innovatively. I know that I don’t have all the answers – let alone most or even some of the answers – so seeking to understand how we might better engage youth as employees and members of our financial co-operative is something that they’ve been teaching me. This summer I’m working hard to follow their lead!

Awesome listening

Ashley’s take

By really listening to us, senior leaders have gained deeper understanding of opportunities for improving how to community our strategic priorities as well as what young people are looking for in products and services from financial institutions (not to mention what we want our work to look and feel like). I think this demonstrates the impact that reverse-mentorship can have.

John’s take

I love to talk. And I especially love to share my story and advice with young people. So it’s kinda counterintuitive to take an intern for coffee and spend most of my time listening to their ideas. The thing is that leaders need to talk less and listen more. As Forbes’ Mike Myatt bluntly puts it: “almost universally, the smartest person in the room is not the one doing all the talking – it’s the person asking a few relevant and engaging questions and then doing most all the listening.” You have about three weeks left to take an intern for a tasty iced coffee – or maybe a cocktail – and fully engage them as an empathetic listener. This means ignoring texts and emails and letting them lead the conversation’s journey with your questions and statements acting as thoughtful sign-posts on the path they’re carving through the professional wilderness.

So that’s what mentorship as an exchange of ideas looks like. And here are three things that I’ve learned from listening to Ashley:

What I learned

Meetings might be terrible

“People meet a lot,” Ashley told me when I asked what she’d learned and what surprised her in our first week together. Ashley spoke of hyper-productive, well-run meetings as well as ones that were mostly social and totally aimless. I love meetings (note the “I love talking” comment above), so this comment forced me to reflect on my career to date and how people have met in the organizations where I’ve worked. Based on my experience, professionals everywhere spend too much time talking in groups. Since my chat with Ashley, I’ve spent many hours learning about how to make meetings more productive and fun as well as how to get work done without them.

Space and pace

This is how the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat win NBA titles and it’s also something that I learned from Ashley. When you give trust up front to a super-capable intern (space to do great work) they feel motivated and creative and this translates into pretty darn impactful results (executed at an efficient pace). Specifically, by giving your intern genuine autonomy to do stuff (and maybe fail and have to do it again) s/he will be able to move quickly, confidently and creatively; we should do more of this everywhere all the time.

Quiet leadership

I recently told one of Ashley’s former classmates a story of how she moves work along with empathy, incredible listening and idea-connecting leadership. As you might imagine, I move work along quite differently – also empathetic and connective, but I definitely lean into my enthusiasm and ability to influence folks by talking. Observing how Ashley quietly helps people organize their ideas, connects them smartly, and then supports the group in finding a shared path is really inspiring and, when applied, this lesson will help me become a better leader, too.

These are some of the things from taking Ashley’s advice, which is what you should do, too.

Ashley’s best advice

At its best, a mentor-mentee relationship is an exchange of information. A mentor can learn a lot from their mentee if they choose to listen! There is so much to gain value from mentoring if we approach the relationship as reciprocal learning opportunities.

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