Reverse Mentoring: How to get it right

In today’s multi-generational workforces, reverse mentoring (where a less experienced/junior employee mentors a more senior colleague) is becoming increasingly popular.

It’s often talked about in the context of the younger, supposedly more ‘tech savvy’ employee helping managers get to grips with social media and our increasingly digitised workplaces. But although there may well be some older workers who do need a helping hand with the likes of Twitter or a new automated system, that certainly doesn’t apply to all – and reverse mentoring can have much wider applications.

It’s a great way, for example, to help the business improve retention of talented Millennial employees, by supporting them in building relationships and helping them feel valued. A reverse mentoring relationship can help leaders get a more in-depth understanding of what younger employees want from their jobs, what aspects of work they find frustrating and how they like to be managed.

man and woman company culture

Organisations are also using it to support diversity and inclusion initiatives, improve knowledge sharing and stimulate innovation.

Implementing reverse mentoring is not, however, without its challenges. Senior executives may be sceptical about the benefits and reluctant to commit time. Younger employees may lack the confidence to build relationships with leaders and fear that if it doesn’t go well, there could be career-limiting consequences.

So, what are the key factors to consider if you are looking to turn traditional mentoring approaches on their head and introduce reverse partnerships?

1. Be clear about objectives

Make sure you are really clear about what you want a reverse mentoring programme to actually achieve. Is it to support a talent management initiative or as part of a career development programme? Are you seeing it as part of a wider employee engagement initiative? Or is the key driver to improve understanding between the generations and support multi-generational working? If you are clear about the goals when you set out, it will be much easier to measure progress and effectiveness further down the line.

2.Consider the culture

Not all corporate climates will be conducive to mentoring – of any kind, let alone reverse mentoring. If the overriding culture is authoritarian, very hierarchical and characterised by ‘command and control’ style leadership, upward mentoring is unlikely to land well. Organisations that have a coaching culture, prioritise learning, and have open and transparent communication will find it much easier to introduce and benefit from mentoring. Of course mentoring can be a great way to help shift mindsets in cultures where it is not a natural fit, but it will need support and role modelling from the top and needs to be implemented as part of a wider cultural transformation programme, rather than a stand-alone initiative.

3.Set relationships up well from the outset

It’s important that those taking part in a reverse mentoring relationship are clear about the objectives and ground rules from the outset. How will the matching process be managed? What is each party expecting from the relationship? What are the boundaries of what they will discuss when they meet? Who will take responsibility for setting up meetings? What happens if the two parties don’t get on?

If confidentiality is key, both parties need to know that what’s said in the room, stays in the room. The role of the line manager also needs to be made explicit. They need to be aware of mentoring relationships and to support younger employees by giving them time out of their working day to take part – but they also need to respect boundaries and not question their direct reports or expect them to divulge what has been discussed.

4. Provide training and support

Don’t assume that people will automatically know how to be good mentors or mentees without at least some level of training or support. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy, formal training programme, but at the very least people will need some input on what mentoring is, some help on developing key skills such as listening and questioning, and awareness around some of the sensitivities that may arise and how to deal with them. In the case of upward mentoring, there are some subtle power dynamics at play, and parties may need support and advice on how to deal with them. One key issue, for example, is what happens if the mentee (the senior party), finds it hard to step away from being the person ‘in charge’ and starts taking the upper hand? People need to have someone to turn to – either within HR or a nominated mentoring ‘supervisor’ – if they come across difficulties within their mentoring relationship.

5. Pilot and review

It’s wise to consider a ‘soft launch’ or pilot before diving headlong into reverse mentoring, particularly if you are unsure of how well the concept will be received. Maybe pick a couple of areas of the business, or invite expressions of interest from a small group, so that you can test the idea, see what kind of support people need and iron out any wrinkles. Use the learning from the pilot to inform development of a wider programme. Those who have been early adopters can be used as ‘champions’ to help spread the message and create a sense of excitement around the initiative. Make sure evaluation is built into the wider programme from the start, with regular check-in points where you can assess progress and adjust as necessary.

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