Reverse-Mentoring: Learning From Digital Natives

We need humility, we need a sense of connection with the future, and with the young. In that humility, we need to be able to learn from a different perspective.


Around a year ago, a 20-year-old Chinese American kid from a top university, at the recommendation of one of my nephews, flew down to Dubai from the US for a 3-month internship at my office. And in the 3 months that he was with us, I learned way more from him than what he learned from me. I learned how a bright young mind thinks, and how he was future-focused. This young man introduced me to Snapchat, he taught me to play Pokémon GO, he took me to Dubai Mall and we chased monsters together. Frankly, I couldn’t even get what the fuss was all about — how, and why, it was so viral. However, it gave me an understanding of the current thinking and perspective.

He attended meetings with me, and at the end of one of our meetings, I said, “Oh! That went really well”. He replied, “No, from my perspective, it was crap!”

And I asked why? He said, “You didn’t think of the 20-year-old, you didn’t spend enough time talking about the future of young people, you didn’t look at the new elements of social media, you were talking about platforms that are irrelevant to us; so, by definition, you were completely eliminating us, while we are the leaders of the future”.

And it became very, very clear to me that I needed to learn a lot from him and young people like him. A Chinese proverb says that to develop into the future, you should talk to young people, you should talk to your children. They have a view of the future that is different from yours, they have an innocence and a sense of purity about the future that you don’t have, because you have already had a long, full life, and you have now been tainted with experience. Which is good on one side, but on the other side, you are seeing things through the lens of your experience, whereas they see things through the lens of the future. And their lens is clear, yours is muddy with experiences and setbacks.

“You didn’t think of the 20-year-old, you didn’t spend enough time talking about the future of young people” (Photo by on Unsplash)


That is when I started solidifying my ideas on the fact that mentoring is a 360-degree process. I have mentors like Tony Buzan and Marshall Goldsmith. I also have lots of lateral mentors, at peer level, where I learn from their expertise and certain types of experiences. And I have younger mentors, whom I learn from in a completely different way.

What was interesting, was that when I started talking about it to people my age, they could certainly relate to it. So, I started speaking about it more often. And I went out there and spoke at the KPMG summit in front of 350 people, and the Dubai Quality Group, and another few hundred people at the Harvard Business School Crossroads Conference.

At the end of an hour-long presentation, one of the things that almost everyone came and spoke to me about was the fact that “my young kid said this”, “I learned this from them”, “you are absolutely right”, “yes, I need to think about it more”, “I am too scared of technology”, “yes they know more than I do”.

And that’s when it all started coming together. If during a 1-hour presentation in which I spoke about robotics, AI, and singularity, people come and talk to me about what they learned from a younger person, it means that it connects with people’s hearts. People have children, people have nieces and nephews, people have young connections. It is very human, very real, and that’s why people relate to it.


This was the process that went on in the back of my head while this mentoring concept was evolving. If you were born after 1990, you are a digital native. You were born in a digital environment, you grew up in a digital world, and you see things entirely differently. People who are older than 35–40 were born in an analog world and are now moving into a digital world.

If you were born after 1990, you are a digital native. (Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash)


When you move from an analog into a digital world, what you’re doing is learning a new language. As we all know, when you learn a language at the age of 5 or 10, you can pick it up in a flash. Learning a language at the age of 20 or 30 is much more difficult, almost impossible. Therefore, the average 50-year-old executive is now learning about this new digital world we are in — about transformation, convergence, and exponential change.

Intellectually, we are getting it, we are learning the basics of the language. But it’s like learning Chinese — it is a new way of thinking, and there are lots of nuances that we don’t understand.

And those are the elements that we are now missing. Now, to jump-start, and to overcome those gaps, the best thing is to go and live in the country, or to be with people who only speak that language — the digital natives.

And that is what mentors can provide us. They can provide us, in real time, the new language that we have to learn and understand, feel and connect with. That’s why it is important to work with younger people, so we can learn the language of the future, which to them is natural. So, if you are 50 and above, what you need is to engage with people who are 20 and below, because they’re the ones who will be able to give you that feel and that view of the future.

We assume a 50-year-old CEO to be a good leader because he has managed to achieve a certain level of accomplishment. If you put up the following question to that person- “You may be a great leader. Are you a digital leader of the future?” 80% say that they are not. They may be leaders, but they are not digital leaders. “How important is digital transformation for the future?” 80% say that it is not only important, it is fundamental for the future. Ask “How capable do you feel to be able to execute digital transformation strategies into the future?” and less than 20% can say, confidently, that they are able to achieve that.

Thus, there is a gap of about 80% of highly qualified, very senior, very capable and competent business leaders, who believe that they cannot execute a future digital strategy.

We assume a 50-year-old CEO to be a good leader because he has managed to achieve a certain level of accomplishment. (Photo by Thomas Charters on Unsplash)

And frankly, they’re right. Because the new strategy is in Chinese, and they have never spoken Chinese in their lives. They’re just sort-of learning. So, what they have to start doing is bringing in people from the Chinese community — the young community, the digital community — to be able to address that gap. And then learn all the elements — all of the new dynamics of digital leadership, how change happens, and how rapid that change is.


Change has been there throughout time. However, because of the information revolution and digitization, the speed of change is now unprecedented. Our brains are geared to be linear, while the world that we are living in is exponential; and that disconnect is the key thing that is holding us back as leaders. We need to engage in the digital world because of convergence, and the fact that there will be another 3.5 billion new minds connecting into the internet grid with smart phones, with capabilities that will create a completely new market, new language, and a new space that we need to go to. And because 75% of the working population by the year 2025, which is only 8 years away, will be millennial. If that’s the case, we need to start engaging in that way of thinking. Otherwise, we are out of the game.


The lifespan of human beings, now around 80, will become around 90 to 100 in the next 10–15 years. So, if you are 50 years old, you have almost half your life to live. Therefore, it is not an option anymore, not to learn the new language. As a matter of fact, the only sensible thing to do is to jump on that bandwagon and reinvent yourself. And in that process, we need to think differently, learn a lot, listen a lot; be mentored by young people.


The younger you are, the more curious you are, and the more questions you ask. When you are 5, everything is a why — why this? why that? When you are 20, you still ask questions because you don’t have all the answers. For humanity to lead in the future, we need to be able to ask the right questions. Computers are there to process answers, but we are there to direct them, and inquisitive questioning becomes a very powerful skill that older people need to develop. We can become jaded and tainted by life, and therefore we feel we know. But whatever we knew in the past does not represent the future.

(Photo by Roman Logov on Unsplash)

There is a burgeoning youth population here in the GCC that is almost 2/3 of the environment. Because we live in a young country, with a very young economy and a lot of young people, everything is to play for. It becomes crucial to be able to engage with the youthful mind. Without reverse-mentoring, you miss out on 50% of what you need to learn.

The new leader of the future is someone who can surf the tsunami, and not fight it. As the first wave crashes, you get on top of the second one. You may not be able to ride out all the waves, but you stay on top of the board, constantly surfing. For the young people, riding those waves is the new normal. We need to be champion surfers, and surfing is not a sport for the faint-hearted; it requires strength, courage, and an open mind.

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