This article originally appeared in Issue 3 of Catalyst Magazine.
Reverse mentoring; upward mentoring; mutual mentoring, just plain old mentoring with a twist. Whatever it’s called, it’s clear that traditional mentoring models, based on an older and supposedly wiser mentor imparting wisdom to a more junior mentee, are increasingly sharing the stage with models where both parties are doing the learning.
It was Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who popularised the concept of reverse mentoring in the late 1990s. His focus was on what more junior employees could teach their elders about new technology and tools. A pilot project paired 500 senior and junior employees, ‘tipping the organisation upside down’ with ‘the youngest and brightest teaching the oldest’. It worked. The senior workers learned about the latest tech; the juniors met people who could champion and sponsor them, gaining a sense that they had a direct line into top management.
Since then, the idea of pairing senior and junior colleagues for mutual development has grown and adapted. These days, the focus is as likely to be about diversity as technological upskilling. As well as providing an effective route for executives to catch up on skills they may never have learned, programmes allow participants to walk in each other’s shoes, challenging stereotypes and biases by exploring differences in age, gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality, while also giving more junior employees a real sense of what their leaders actually do and how they think and operate. Programmes that successfully access wider perspectives have been credited with everything from millennial and female talent retention to better crossgenerational engagement and improved inclusivity.
According to University of Minnesota professor, Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, reverse mentoring works best when tied to a strong business need. Her research shows that, because reverse mentoring requires cultural shifts, especially for the executives involved, successful programmes need buy-in from the top, careful thought and serious commitment. Companies also need to set clear ground rules and make expectations clear. Widening the scope of mentoring effectively requires three ‘Ps’: purpose, planning and preparation:
What do you want your reverse mentoring programme to achieve? Be strategic in setting objectives in line with wider organisational goals. How will it contribute to your D&I work, for example, or updating the skills of your senior people? Are you looking to empower and engage millennials or any other group? Be clear about the learning expectations at the micro-level too: what learning/shifts in attitudes or behaviour are you expecting to see from participants? Clarity of purpose will help with communication around programmes, and support better engagement too.
If your organisation is new to reverse mentoring, it’s probably best to start with a smaller-scale pilot to test how it’ll all work before a wider roll-out. Think about the criteria you’ll use to pair people up; how you’ll prepare them; how you’ll monitor and measure progress; how learning will be shared more widely, and how you’ll use any themes and patterns that emerge. Get your most senior leaders involved: starting at the top will show how serious you are about the programme and encourage other managers to take part. Leading HR consultant Professor David Clutterbuck advocates a “significant hierarchical gap” between mentor and mentee to overcome the possibility that those nearer the top will fear jeopardising their next career move by giving robust feedback. Start with partnerships likely to be able to balance challenge with respect, and where both parties really want to learn.
Reverse mentoring deliberately puts people into an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable situation, so it’s crucial to prepare everyone involved. Explore and define expectations. Train both parties to manage what Clutterbuck calls “power distance issues”. Senior people need to dial down their managerial personas, show themselves to be open to challenge, to confront their own assumptions and stereotypes, and – crucially – to encourage the junior mentor to be honest and forthright. Junior partners need to learn how to “speak truth to power” in ways that encourage reflection and open dialogue. As you monitor progress, participants may need ‘top-up’ coaching to explore the issues that come up.
Reverse mentoring may not entirely lead to Jack Welch-style organisational ‘flipping’, but re-thinking traditional mentoring hierarchies will open up your organisation to new learning possibilities. Everyone brings their unique experiences, capabilities and talents to work; effective reverse mentoring provides a framework for these to be shared and deployed.