Reverse mentoring: why not take the challenge?

Written by
Changeboard Team

24 May 2016

24 May 2016 • by Changeboard Team

Reverse mentoring is no modern concept

The concept of mentoring derives from Greek Mythology, where King Ulysses trusted the guardianship of his son, Telemachus, to mentor – his servant, who held a wider role of tutor, counsellor and guide. 

Mentoring in organisations is usually the province of those older and wiser who are willing to take an interest in an individual, support them in their long-term development and help them navigate their way through the complexities of organisational life. 

But what if that position was reversed and the older, long-serving individual is actively mentored by someone younger? This ‘reverse’ mentor could provide a different kind of wisdom and a new perspective on the company and its culture. Turning the mentoring relationship on its head can be revolutionary for everyone involved.

That is exactly my experience. A long-standing senior consultant and member of the senior management team at Roffey Park Institute, I embraced the opportunity to be mentored by one of our rising stars, an individual with bags of insight and confidence.  

At Roffey Park our research into talent and the generations has uncovered useful insights into what motivates different generations at work. As a classic baby boomer, my working style is characterised by strong loyalty to the organisation, respect for authority and hierarchy, and concern for the common good. My Generation X mentor values pace-setting approaches and a willingness to experiment and has a more cautious respect for authority. Through the mentoring relationship we explored these drivers and goals together to understand the differences between our attitudes to work and career.

What can be learnt from reverse mentoring?

My mentor provided a new and refreshing lens through which I could take a fascinating look at my behaviour and work patterns.  Through reverse mentoring I gained:

  • New energy and excitement about the next stage of my own development and its alignment with Roffey’s growth plans
  • The opportunity to interact with new ideas at a challenging intellectual level, particularly in the area of organisational development  – an area of strength for  my mentor 
  • I realised in my mentor’s eyes I still had something to offer and am not perceived as “past it”; a relief in our increasingly ageist society
  • Finally, a greater ability to embrace change and learn from it

Kouzes and Posner (2007) described the five practices of exemplary leadership as modelling the way, encouraging the heart, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process and enabling others to act. Each of these practices is implicit to mentoring. At the same time, reverse mentoring can help senior managers and experts to challenge their own “sacred cows”. It can empower them, through new insights and mind sets, to gain new perspectives on the world.

Be mindful when reverse mentoring

At the start of a reverse mentoring relationship I recommend these pre-requisites:

  • Clear contracting between both parties about confidentiality and relationship boundaries. What is in? What is out? What is negotiable and non-negotiable?
  • Be open about  desires and offers from both sides
  • Clarity of desired outcomes
  • Permission to exchange meaningful constructive and developmental feedback
  • Above all a willingness to meet as equals – this allows for stretch and debate

In a senior management position it is very easy to engage and discuss challenges with your own peers and use them as your sounding board. But you are missing a trick if you confine yourself to people who share your perspectives. A reverse mentor can help open up your thinking so you can take advantage of new networks, different channels of communication and new ways of working.

Henry Ford once wrote “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young”. 

That is what reverse mentoring can do for you!