Is Reverse Mentoring the Way Forward?

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern. Yoda and Luke Skywalker. Most mentors are usually older than their mentees. But some firms are flipping this relationship to innovate, retain talent, and gain a market edge.

Written by Alastair Roy
Published 12 July 2021
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Is Reverse Mentoring the Way Forward?

What is reverse mentoring? 

The dictionary defines a mentor as “a wise or trusted adviser or guide.” [1] Traditionally, wisdom is associated with older and more experienced people. And mentors – at work and in life – are usually seen as senior figures who advise younger mentees. 

Reverse mentoring flips this thinking. As TheArtofMentoring.Net says, these relationships “place the more senior person as the primary learner and emphasize the experience of the junior person.” [2] 

First sparks 

General Electric (GE) was the first organization to implement a formal, reverse mentoring program. In the 1990s, CEO Jack Welch had a hunch that the internet was going to transform business. But he didn’t know how. To find out, he encouraged 500 execs to pair up with younger, tech-savvy mentors to learn about new technology. He led by example, too, and caught up regularly with a younger mentor. [3] 

With reverse mentoring, GE’s leaders got fresh perspectives into where the industry is going, while mentors got to network with colleagues who’d climbed the corporate ladder. 

The benefits of reverse mentoring 

Most case studies you read about reverse mentoring describe a Millennial, Gen X or Gen Z employee showing an older colleague around social media, the latest app or piece of software. But there’s more to reverse mentoring than highfalutin IT support. Just look at the people and organizations thinking bigger. They use the relationship to: 

1. Innovate 

Estée Lauder collaborates with young employees to create new product lines aimed at their demographic. As mentor De Simone says, “Estée has allowed a young employee, say, working in finance to cross into a different area and through the mentor programme or the advisory boards in way they could not in their day job.” [4] 

2. Retain talent  

At Deutsche Bank, young employees share insights with manager-mentees on how to retain talent and implement initiatives such as flexible working and remote learning. And mentors get tips for the leadership roles they’ll inhabit. [5]  

3. Get fresh perspectives  

The UK’s HMRC leaders team up with young mentors from BAME backgrounds to gain a wider range of perspectives. [6] Its reverse mentoring program promotes diversity in leadership roles, increases intercultural awareness, and helps leaders overcome unconscious bias.  

4. Find new solutions to old problems  

Social media management platform Hootsuite has company-wide “hackathons,” where senior and junior employees team up to spend a day solving passion projects. They use insights from sessions to solve real customer issues. [7] 

5. Create a learning culture 

Some organizations don’t look at age or status at all. To create its mentor programme, tech firm Intel simply focuses on the skills of staff. [8] Employees seek out as many mentoring opportunities as they want to, and by sharing knowledge and plugging skills gaps, they help create a learning culture.  

How to embrace reverse mentoring 

If you’re persuaded by the argument for reverse mentoring, try: 

  • Starting from the top – CEO mentees give young employees the confidence to mentor, and help older or more experienced employees overcome any embarrassment with the role reversal. 

  • Asking a younger colleague for help – you’ll answer a genuine work query and show you’re approachable and open to collaboration. 

  • Building on a relationship – reverse mentoring works best when mentee and mentor click. Is there someone in your organization you get on with, who could share their knowledge and benefit from yours? 

  • Flagging your skills and knowledge gaps – blogging for your company website or on LinkedIn lets others know your speciality. You could even post an update about what you want to learn from a mentor. 

Download our free research report to discover the impact of mentoring and get tips to inspire learning in your organization. 


Sources

[1] Collins dictionary definition of mentor available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[2] ‘Reverse Mentoring’ (2015). Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[3] James Young, 'How Reverse Mentoring Can Help Your Business'. (2018). Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[4] Sujeet Indap, ‘Estée Lauder applies millennial makeover’ (2016). Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[5] Kevin Roose, ‘Executive Mentors Wanted. Only Millennials Need Apply.’ Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[6] Sara Ashley O'Brien, 'Facebook commits to seeking more minority directors' (2018). Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[7] Ryan Holmes, ‘Reverse mentoring is the technique that helps managers as much as their employees’ (2018). Available here. (Accessed 5 July 2021). 

[8] Lance, ‘Which companies use mentoring?’ Available here. (Accessed 24 July 2018). 

About the author

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy

Content Editor/Writer
Alastair brings 15 years' experience writing, editing and prodding at content. During that time, he’s picked up copywriting, content marketing and video editing skills. Along with two shirts and about a stone in weight. At Emerald Works, he enjoys creating resources that help people better themselves.
 

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