NCIDQ News: Turning the Tables

June 1, 2008

The concept of reverse mentoring can prove to be invaluable for seasoned design professionals.

By Deborah Steinmetz

Recently I met with Emily, a young woman who is completing her Master of Interior Design degree at a local college. She was in the process of enrolling in NCIDQ's Interior Design Experience Program (IDEP) and asked me if I would consider being her mentor.

During our 30-minute conversation, in which she shared her portfolio and examples of her studio work, I found myself marveling at her technical abilities and presentation skills. I wanted to know how she had achieved different techniques in her CAD drawings and perspectives. As she was explaining how to import JPG images into a DWG document, it dawned on me that while I have considered mentoring to be an experience in which I, the mentor, counsel a (typically younger) mentee, what was actually occurring was a mentee was teaching me—a seasoned practitioner—something new! I was experiencing a phenomenon dubbed "reverse mentoring."

According to Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, reverse mentoring is "a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you're in your 40s and 50s, you're not in touch with the future the same way the young twenty-something's [are]. They come with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the technology of our future."

However, age of the participants is not the only factor when considering this type of mentoring relationship. "Reverse mentoring relationships are developed to gain technical expertise and a different perspective," says Matt Starcevich, CEO of the Center for Coaching and Mentoring. In a study conducted in 2001, Starcevich's company found that 41 percent of respondents used reverse mentoring to spread technical expertise, and 26 percent relied on younger staff members to help executives gain a more youthful perspective.

The director of the Wharton's Fellows Program at the Wharton School of Business, Jerry Wind, notes, "Executives are beginning to realize that knowledge isn't a one-way street. It's in everyone's best interest to share expertise." Personally, I am interested in the concept of reverse mentoring because it potentially adds to the list of benefits of being an IDEP mentor.

First piloted in 1999, IDEP has roles for three people: the participant, a supervisor and a mentor. Historically, finding mentors has been one of the biggest challenges facing participants. Unlike a supervisor, a mentor is an interior designer who the participant does not necessarily work for ... someone who can give the participant ideas on how to achieve diversified training and career advice as he or she begins his or her journey to become a professional. The mentor provides a "bigger picture" perspective and helps the participant stay on track when pursuing career goals. It is possible that over the course of an individual's participation in IDEP, the participant may have more than one mentor.

Several years ago, NCIDQ past president Shirley Hammond authored an article titled "What's In It For Me?" (Interiors & Sources, June 2002). In the article, Hammond highlighted 10 reasons why mentoring is good for a mentor. Those reasons included helping the organization you work for, receiving recognition, and realizing an opportunity to move into "generativity" (versus stagnation).

As I re-read her article, I thought about the people who have served as guides in my career. Certainly I encountered professors in my schooling who provided mentoring as part of their teaching style. But I believe it was informal mentoring (I didn't use that term back then) that was most helpful to my career growth. Interactions with people who gave me counsel and advice were invaluable to my evolution as a professional. I wonder if they benefited from my youthful perspective as I did the morning I spoke with Emily.

Mentoring, reverse mentoring or plain old coaching—whatever you want to call it—our profession needs individuals to take the time to make a difference by sharing their experience and expertise with designers entering the profession.

Deborah Steinmetz is president-elect of NCIDQ. She is an NCIDQ Certificate holder and principal of Steinmetz & Associates, with offices in Atlanta and New Orleans. For more information on IDEP, visit

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