Reverse Mentoring: Connecting Workforces and Achieving Organizational Goals

With four or five generations represented in most workforces today, exchanging information and knowledge between people is important. Mentoring is a common practice in which a senior employee advises and trains an employee who is usually younger and always less experienced. However, younger employees have skills that senior employees need, like being comfortable with technology for networking. Younger employees also may have innovative problem-solving skills, are open-minded about work and how it can be accomplished, and are familiar with cultural and social relevance issues. Senior employees can learn from younger employees, which is what reverse mentoring is all about. Reverse mentoring programs usually pair a younger employee with an organizational leader to create a relationship in which the younger employee helps leaders gain new perspectives, generational insights, and new skills.

Two-Way Flow of Information

Retaining younger employees is challenging today for many reasons. Some reasons can be quickly named, like a tight labor market making it easy to change jobs. Some reasons may be obscure because people quit without an explanation. If your organization doesn’t do exit interviews, there is no way of knowing why someone quits. For example, an employee may not like the organizational culture because there is not enough transparency in decision-making. In December 2022, 4.1 million people quit. A LinkedIn and CensusWide survey found that 72 percent of Gen Z employees and 66 percent of millennials were thinking about making a career change in the next 12 months. Call it job-hopping or the “big quit,” but the reality is that many younger employees want to be more like “partners” in the workplace than employees. They want a career path, work autonomy, and an employee voice.  

Coaching and mentoring will contribute to meeting all three needs, but teaching younger employees “we’ve always done it this way” will not engage them. Managers who are always the mentors are also not purposefully learning from their mentees in many situations. Yes, your leaders have much knowledge to share and should share for business continuity, but your younger employees have insights that more senior employees may not have. A lot has changed in a short period of time, like the growth of social media, the focus on social justice, the empowerment of employees, and the unique perspectives that new generations bring to the workplace. 

Reverse mentoring is a form of employee voice, in addition to supporting skills and knowledge sharing and an employee engagement process. The less senior employees can share their perspectives in two-way conversations that promote career development. The senior employee can be an executive, senior manager, mid-level manager, or supervisor. The two-way conversation allows the more experienced employee to learn more about how less senior employees want to advance themselves as members of a purpose-driven organization

It should be noted that the person chosen as a mentee for career development and a future leadership role is usually a younger employee. Still, there are other types of reverse mentoring programs. For example, a younger employee is paired with an older employee who is not in a leadership position because the older employee needs experiential skills development. Or a more senior employee who is not a manager but has a high level of technology skills is a mentee paired with a younger employee. However, the younger employee is still chosen as having a high potential for becoming a leader or becoming a better leader.  

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Goals of Reverse Mentoring 

Reverse mentoring empowers emerging leaders and breaks down boundaries between workers and leaders, promoting loyalty and generating trust. Some elements of the reverse mentoring process and examples of the information exchange include the following. 

  • Knowledge sharing - shares technical expertise 
  • Visibility – collaborates on projects that allow the mentor to demonstrate autonomy and creative approaches to meeting project goals
  • New perspective – conversations enable the younger mentor to offer a fresh perspective on the organization and engaging leader behaviors
  • Challenging the status quo – a mentor is given opportunities to develop new approaches to problem-solving and implementation of solutions
  • Skills development – mentor provides feedback to the leader and shares knowledge about things like the use of social media sites as a networking tool in and outside the organization
  • Values sharing – the mentor-mentee exchanges promote common values
  • Employee engagement – provides leader support and encouragement that strengthens employee engagement
  • View of the world – generations have different views of how the world should work, which drove organizations to internally embrace concepts like social justice, equity, environmental sustainability, and other areas 

Another critical element of reverse mentoring is the opportunity for the senior leader to understand better the role of life experiences in developing younger and/or diverse employee perspectives. Unconscious bias that leads to discrimination in promotions and development opportunities is often rooted in a lack of understanding of other people’s experiences and how it influences their perspectives and approaches to work. Reverse mentoring promotes acceptance of diversity and inclusion in the organization and improves leadership’s emotional intelligence. 

Elements of Reverse Mentoring

Mentoring is a structured process with tools to ensure the relationship is productive. The pairing of mentees and mentors is an important step, but this is the best time to broaden opportunities for participating employees. Some organizations focus on a particular group of employees, like women or people of color. Creating matches that may seem unlikely or a mismatch can broaden growth opportunities for the mentee and mentor. One of the goals of reverse mentoring is each person stretching professionally and personally.  

The elements of reverse mentoring include the following. 

  • Develop a reverse mentoring program plan and goals, including expectations for both parties
  • Schedule sessions to promote accountability
  • Establish the “rules of the road,” which include expectations and opportunities for sharing
  • Implement an internal communication system share point site where the mentee and mentor can communicate at any time, being sure to choose the communication tools that are most desired and effective
  • Develop a feedback system for learning
  • Develop a process for data collection and data analysis to keep the program progressing

The reverse mentoring tools supporting communication include eLearning programs, mobile apps, internal social media, videos, podcasts, virtual meeting technology, etc. Creative use of digital communications will engage younger employees. Regular face-to-face meetings are included in an effective reverse mentoring program, but they are supported with tools like instant messaging or the share point site.  

Of course, reverse mentoring only works if the leader is willing to accept feedback and stays open to change. It’s essential not to lose sight of the fact that feedback should promote leadership improvement. The pairing is only productive when there is mutual trust too. The goal is for the younger mentor to push the leader outside of the person’s comfort zone, so the manager or supervisor is willing to try new ways of problem-solving, employee engagement, completing work, and so on. 

Two more crucial goals are enabling generations to work together better by exchanging skills and knowledge and developing future leaders. While reverse mentoring enables the younger employee to share knowledge and skills with a more experienced employee, it is a two-way feedback system like the traditional mentoring program. The senior leader must be willing to listen. The mentor, for example, may share technological skills, and the mentee guides the mentor in career growth. BNY Mellon’s CEO, Jim Crowley, partnered with a younger millennial mentor to help him learn and utilize social media. As a result, “Jim [Crowley] has totally shifted the way he interacts and communicates with employees… Jim is incredibly active on [our internal social media platform]. [He] is also active representing the company [on LinkedIn], which he never was before this program.” So reverse mentoring can work at any organizational level. 

For the reverse mentoring process to work, there is another requirement. The mentor and mentee must respect each other and be willing to keep an open mind, meaning a great deal of emotional intelligence is needed. This doesn’t mean the employee and leader will always agree. It does mean the relationship doesn’t devolve into one defined by resistance and conflict. Positive conflict is possible, but it should be a learning opportunity.  

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Supporting an Inclusive and Continually Learning Organization

Reverse mentoring is a practice for bringing multigenerational people together to share knowledge and skills. In any mentorship program, the benefits include the exchange of information and skills development for future leadership, but many of the benefits are psychological. 

  • Boosts employee engagement
  • Supports inclusion of generations of workers, reducing inter-generational conflicts and bias by breaking down stereotypes
  • Helps prepare current leaders to thrive in a changing business environment
  • Contributes to a culture of trust
  • Supports increasing diversity in leadership which embeds values of inclusion and belonging
  • Promotes an attitude of continuous learning
  • Gives mentors recognition
  • Supports employee voice
  • Can reduce turnover
  • Reduces skills gaps

Keeping the Reverse Mentoring Program on Track

One of the challenges to a successful reverse mentoring program is keeping the program on track. Program buy-in and accountability are crucial, starting at the top with executive suite support. The organization must be willing to invest the resources in the program to ensure it has what it needs for success, like the communication system and allowing employee time for participation. Reverse mentoring becomes an element in the employee experience and can significantly influence the organization’s brand as an employer of choice.  

Also, senior or older leaders must be willing to keep an open mind. There is always the risk of the mentee needing help accepting honest feedback from a younger, less experienced employee. The reverse mentoring program needs relevance to personal and organizational goals, which will reduce potential resistance. 

The first key to success in reverse mentoring is developing a program with goals and a means of accountability. IRI Consultants can assist with developing a reverse mentoring program, including developing the right tools for success.

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