For years mentoring focused on the older generation passing wisdom to the younger generation, but today’s forward-looking organisations are putting reverse mentoring programs in place.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is when an organisation pairs junior team members with senior team members to help build a more diverse, inclusive culture. As executive coach and personal development advocate Patrice Gordon said on Ted Talk, it’s about letting the “novice” teach the “master”. After all, says Patrice, studies have shown that even when at the pinnacle of their careers, there’s always more leaders and senior executives can learn.

Why is reverse mentoring valuable?

Patrice says today’s workforce comprises five generations and is becoming more diverse. Yet many boardrooms have a growing gap between leaders and their people, with perspectives and experiences. “Organisations can fall though that gap into the trap of stale thinking, blind spots and having policies that could alienate underrepresented groups, not only with age, race or gender but all different kinds of viewpoints,” says Patrice.

Forward-thinking organisations use reverse mentoring as one tool to tackle this challenge. In doing so they enjoy multiple benefits.

Seven tips for an effective reverse mentoring program

  1. Strike the right match

Striking the right match between a younger mentor and senior leader is critical. Choose a mentor who is open to sharing ideas and enthusiastic about leadership development. Think outside the box so you learn from outside your immediate team. Think about cutting across departments and divisions. This will ensure different perspectives, and different perspectives make better leaders. If you’re in finance, for example, you could benefit from a mentor in customer service. If you’re in information technology, a mentor from the communications or marketing area might be beneficial.

  1. Avoid a direct report

The mentor should never be a direct report to the senior mentee. This makes it too difficult to elicit honest feedback and is inevitably awkward. The mentor will likely always have it in the back of their minds that the person they’re mentoring is the one who reviews their performance.

  1. Don’t solely focus on technology knowledge

To get the most out of reverse mentoring, think beyond just transferring knowledge about technology (like how to use social media). This is valuable but so is discussing strategic issues, policy development and cultural change.

  1. Establish ground rules

To maximise the benefits of reverse mentorship, it’s important to set ground rules and ensure both parties agree on these. What topics are of interest? Are there off-limit topics? Where will meetings take place (preferably offsite and in a neutral location). How often will you meet? What are the confidentiality terms and conditions?

  1. Be committed

Entering a reverse mentoring relationship requires both parties to be 100 per cent committed. Two reasons some reverse-mentoring programs fail is the senior party isn’t genuinely curious about learning from the younger mentor or doesn’t make the relationship a priority. They therefore tend to cancel sessions when something important comes up and eventually momentum dwindles. This sends the wrong message to the junior mentor who has invested so much time and effort into the project.

  1. Avoid role reversion

It’s easy for senior leaders to (consciously or unconsciously) slip into giving the mentor career advice, forgetting that their role in this relationship is to listen and learn, not to teach. Patrice says to avoid “role reversion:, which can be discouraging to the junior mentor, and difficult for them to manage so matters keep on track.

  1. Take action

Reverse mentoring isn’t just about making you a stronger leader; it’s about enhancing and growing your organisation. Share what you learn through reverse mentoring with your team, colleagues and in the boardroom (respecting confidentiality of course). Translate learnings into action, where possible. Weave learnings into your leadership style.

Benefits of reverse mentoring

  • New knowledge.
  • New skills.
  • Fresh perspectives.
  • Employee diversity.
  • Inclusive leadership.
  • Respect for all generations.
  • Stronger leaders.
  • More progressive organisation.
  • Avoid tunnel vision.

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