Reverse mentoring offers a variety of benefits

What do you envision when you read the phrase “workplace mentor”? Perhaps you see a nervous young worker sitting in a seasoned vet’s office, anxiously waiting to learn many “ancient” secrets of success and career longevity. You know what: You’re not wrong. This remains a tried-and-true approach to mentorships.

But there’s another method that’s gotten some attention in recent years. Under “reverse mentoring,” as it’s popularly known, the younger or newer employee mentors the older or more seasoned one. In some cases, a new hire might even teach things to the company owner! As odd as it may sound at first, reverse mentoring offers organizations a variety of benefits.

Background on the concept

The origin of reverse mentoring is commonly attributed to Jack Welch, the groundbreaking executive of General Electric Co. and, later, best-selling author. The story goes that Welch told hundreds of his high-level managers to reach out to a lower level employee to … better understand the Internet.

Nowadays, it’s probably safe to assume that most execs know how to surf the Web. But among the most popular uses for reverse mentoring is to allow younger, more tech-savvy employees to teach older staff members about the latest technology tools and social media platforms. Many midlevel or C-suite managers may have a Facebook page to keep in touch with family and friends. But do they know the power of a hashtag on Twitter, or the reach of a striking image on Instagram?

Since Welch first introduced the concept at GE, a wide variety of organizations large and small have tried reverse mentoring. For example, a top exec at online payment platform PayPal enlisted younger employees as mentors to help him better understand new hires and changes in the global workforce. Software developers Cisco Systems Inc. started a “Gen Y Reverse Mentoring Program” several years ago to bridge the gap between its older and younger employees. And even smaller organizations, such as Ogilvy & Mather (a marketing firm) and Allen & Gerritsen (an ad agency), have used it with some success.

Advantages and risks

In many ways, the advantages of reverse mentorships mirror those of traditional mentoring arrangements. Both the mentor and mentee benefit from the opportunity to build interpersonal skills and see, first hand, that the organization values their knowledge and contributions. Giving workers a way to grow and develop internally can lead to greater engagement and help stem turnover. Plus, reverse mentoring programs can help alleviate generational differences between employees.

As mentioned, the trend in reverse mentoring has been to apply it to technology initiatives. For instance, an organization that wants to get its execs or managers more active on social media might pair each one with a younger, social-media-savvy mentor. Or, if you’ve ever considered changing a major part of your mission-critical technological infrastructure — a major software system or piece of hardware — a younger (or simply more technologically inclined) worker could mentor higher-ups during the implementation.

But this doesn’t mean every reverse mentoring program has to be based around technology. There are some organizations that simply have a gap between older, established employees and younger, newer ones. Physician practices and law firms, as examples, often struggle in this area. Reverse mentoring can provide a formal structure for bridging this gap.

And the risks? Some organizational cultures simply aren’t ready for reverse mentoring. The effort can seem forced and might end up frustrating the exec/established worker while alienating and disappointing the would-be mentor, who’s likely eager to impress. The program might also become a distraction if too much time and energy are spent on mentoring, undercutting the productivity of both parties involved.

Best practices

Here are some best practices in making a mentor-mentee relationship work:

Ensure engagement. Both parties have to fully and equally commit to the process. Mentors must be willing and able to listen, share knowledge and provide feedback. Meanwhile, mentees must be willing and able to absorb and act on the input they receive.

Set expectations. Mentees and their mentors should have similar expectations for the scope of the relationship, including the time commitment each will make, and the short- and long-term goals. Reverse mentorship tends to work best with specific, practical skills or tasks rather than applied to broad, indistinct growth efforts.

Structure. Frequent, regular interaction is required to establish a good working relationship between the two parties and to maintain momentum. Ideally, reverse mentoring programs involve a predetermined schedule, which can be as simple as a weekly phone call or as elaborate as a series of longer meetings featuring presentations and Q&As.

Trust and transparency. This may go without saying, but it’s best to establish it clearly and openly anyway. The two people involved in the mentorship must trust each other and be transparent in their actions. Each should practice open listening and provide both positive remarks and practical criticism.

Better than expected

Whether reverse mentoring will work for your organization will require some careful thought. But it’s thought well spent — a carefully structured and thoughtfully executed program could boost morale, increase productivity and enrich your culture in a way you may not have ever expected.

If you’d like some help on improving your organization’s leadership and team development — including creating a mentoring program (reverse or otherwise) — please contact us. Whether the goal is to improve overall team communication, cohesion, effective organizational management or accountability, Performance Dimensions Group can help you meet that goal.