Mentoring usually involves older or more experienced people passing information down to younger, less experienced people. But what if we turned that on its head? Could there be advantages around younger, less experienced employees mentoring older, more experienced colleagues?
The answer, as it turns out, is a big ‘yes’. When the novice teaches the master, magic happens. Here’s everything you need to know about reverse mentoring, what it is, how it benefits organisations, and the potential pitfalls.
What is reverse mentoring?
It’s extraordinary. Today’s workforce involves as many as five different generations of people working in the same space. And things are only becoming more diverse as time passes. A single department can easily employ people from every continent and culture on the planet.
Diversity is about a lot more than simply age, race and gender, the old preoccupations organisations used to focus on. It’s about all the many and varied viewpoints we have as humans thanks to our different upbringing, culture, social experience, home country, preoccupations, likes, dislikes, life experiences and much more.
While under-represented groups are steadily becoming better represented, change still isn’t happening rapidly enough. And that means there’s a fast-growing gap between leaders and the people they lead, potentially forced apart even further by widely differing perspectives and experiences. Are you missing out on something really powerful?
Let things slide and you can quickly end up with an organisation that’s fallen into a trap where blind spots, stale thinking, and alienating policies can affect groups of people. Reverse mentoring improves the mentee and mentors’ connection to the organisation’s culture. It improves diversity right through the pipeline. It can drive technology forwards. It boosts positive culture change. It’s a great way to defuse unhelpful corporate tunnel vision. It’s about being genuinely curious about individuals, serious about learning from them, and intentional about the valuable relationship you’re going to create.
How does reverse mentoring benefit organisations?
Reverse mentoring can result in a much more inclusive working culture. You might find you understand more about existing audiences and the ways they behave. It can inspire new opportunities, new audiences, new markets. It can spark innovative new product development, fresh services, and new directions nobody would otherwise have discovered.
As a leader you’ll gain a fresh perspective on trends. Increasing the leadership opportunities for minority employees is great for diversity initiatives. Younger employees can help build the skills of senior leaders, who get exciting new perspectives from the next generation of leaders.
You cultivate a learning culture. You overcome the gaps that can develop between the generations at work, breaking down unhelpful stereotypes. Employees are more engaged, employee churn reduces, and if you happen to employ remote workers or some of your people are working from home, reverse mentoring makes it easier to create a solid, unified culture.
Reverse mentoring – What to avoid
There are some pitfalls to avoid. Make sure the mentor match you make isn’t in your team or someone who reports to you, something that’ll make honest feedback difficult and awkward.
Opposites are good. Maybe if you’re in marketing, hook up with someone who has a less creative role, perhaps a financial one. If you’re a classic team player, find someone who’s less team oriented. It matters because different perspectives create better leaders.
As a mentee who’s senior to your mentor, beware of role reversal. In a reverse mentoring situation, your insights are the least important and those of your mentor are the most valuable.
Make sure to meet somewhere neutral, off-site, so the meeting can be free and easy. Remember the mentee sets the agenda – you need to let your mentor know what you want to know! Do you want to find out how they got where they are now? What problems have they overcome along the way? How various company policies have affected them?
Always keep your conversations completely confidential. Formalise anything that’s off the agenda, for example your personal lives or opinions about specific colleagues. And remember, the real power of reverse mentoring is in discovering your differences, not majoring on your similarities.
Always include time for reflection afterwards. Agree key take-aways from each session at the end or by email later. Leave time for reflection in between sessions. And remember that, unlike ordinary mentoring, reverse mentoring gives the mentee most of the power – so give praise where it’s due.
Reverse mentorship means better results
Take a look at this excellent video about one woman’s experience mentoring her boss at Virgin Atlantic. It’s inspiring.
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You can see how organisations use reverse mentoring to help build better teams and get better results through inclusive ownership and leadership. The results reveal how reverse mentoring helps under-represented groups feel confident, share more of their experiences and make their opinions heard. Add a solid diversity and inclusion strategy and you’re well on the way to higher employee retention rates across the board, a solid organisation with a brighter future and – ultimately better business results.