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The Complete Guide to Reverse Mentoring

July 3, 2020
Nicola Cronin

Mentoring is a well proven personal and career development enhancer, with both the person being mentored and the one doing the mentoring gaining a lot from the relationship.

In recent years, organisations have witnessed the benefits of mentoring, not only for their employees, but also the business itself. Formal mentoring programmes are more and more common in order to develop skills, share knowledge, break down silos, and also support diversity and inclusion.

Traditionally, mentoring involves a more senior, experienced person, advising a more junior person. Helping them develop skills, share their experiences and learnings, introduce them to relevant people, and generally support and encourage them. However, there are a number of different types of mentoring, and some suit certain purposes within the workplace better than others.

One of those different types of mentoring is reverse mentoring.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is simply the opposite format of traditional mentoring, where the senior leader is mentored by a younger or more junior employee.

The process recognises that there are skills gaps and opportunities to learn on both sides of a mentoring relationship, and flipping the traditional format on its head can be very beneficial for both parties. Reverse mentoring also challenges the idea of mentoring being elitist, as it’s not about a senior person taking someone under their wing, but a formal relationship for the purpose of skill sharing and professional development.

Why is reverse mentoring important?

Reverse mentoring has many personal and business benefits, and can create a real lasting impact within a business. The likes of KPMG, General Electric, and Fidelity have all found success across different business areas from running reverse mentoring programmes. From supporting diversity initiatives, to engaging and developing their graduate employees.

One company, Pershings, recorded a 97% retention rate of their millennial workforce following a reverse mentoring programme. With 49% of millennials stating they would quit their jobs in the next two years given the choice, retention is naturally a key challenge for many businesses. Reverse mentoring can therefore offer an effective solution.

As well as organisational benefits, reverse mentoring is a powerful way to build human connections and community within a business. Through mentoring at Marks & Spencer, many senior employees are both being mentors and being mentored. One mentor, James Newton-Brown, spoke of his experience of reverse mentoring:

"Every time you have a conversation with someone, you learn something. You learn something about people's behaviour, their motivations, and most importantly you learn something about yourself. For me, it’s a win-win all round."

Further benefits of reverse mentoring include:

  • Building a learning culture
  • Closing generational gaps
  • Developing leadership skills in younger employees
  • Millennial retention
  • Sharing different perspectives
  • Supporting inclusivity
  • Developing communication skills
  • Developing self-confidence and self-awareness

One organisation utilising reverse mentoring for a diversity and inclusion purpose is Mazars. Hear from the Program Manager, Sponsee and Sponsor on their experience of reverse mentoring via Guider: 

Uses of reverse mentoring

When it comes to workplace mentoring programmes, they can be used to support various business impact areas, or achieve business objectives.

There are a number of ways reverse mentoring can be used within organisations, and it can sometimes be even more impactful than traditional mentoring.

Some uses of reverse mentoring include:

  • Inclusion

An inclusive workplace is one that factors in all people equally. Where progression opportunities are visible to everyone, where decision making groups are diverse. Role models within business are important, yet it's hard for employees from minority groups to aspire to leadership when they can't see anyone that looks like them in those positions.

It also may be difficult for leadership to truly understand and recognise the structural and cultural barriers that affect certain employees within the business, when they don't have direct exposure to their experiences.

This is where reverse mentoring can be highly effective. By pairing mentors from under-represented groups with mentees in senior management, they can effectively share perspectives, learn from each other, and work towards a more inclusive company culture.

Reverse mentoring is also a great way for BAME, LGBTQ, disabled, and other minority employees to grow their leadership network in the business, and open doors which are typically harder to get through due to systemic inequality.

  • Closing generational gaps

Bridging the gap between generations in a company is a challenge. The graduate scheme intake each year will be welcoming people into an organisation which operates very differently to the way it did when people who have worked there for decades joined – making it rather difficult to relate to one another. Particularly with digital transformation and the speed at which businesses are changing and developing, there can be a disconnect between older and younger employees.

Reverse mentoring is an effective way of breaking down these silos between generations, exposing those who have worked in the business for a long time to a fresh perspective on the way things are run, and the industry as a whole. New employees can also bring fresh ideas and approach things in a different way, which can inspire innovation in those who may be more stuck in their ways.

This nicely leads on to another common use of reverse mentoring...

  • Digital skills development

In the fast-paced modern world we live in, keeping up with technological advancements and skills can be difficult. Even software engineers, the most digitally savvy of the workforce, still require lots of reading, training, and mentoring to keep up to date with new technologies. For those from an older generation, learning about social media, cloud-based computing and other modern digital skills can be overwhelming.

The graduates now entering the workforce are from Gen Z – the first digitally native generation – meaning that they grew up with advanced digital technology. Rather than putting senior colleagues on to training programmes which generally get very low engagement, reverse mentoring is a common and effective approach to increasing digital skills in older employees.

This kind of reverse mentoring also contributes to inclusivity, helping tackle ageism and increase confidence when discussing digital topics at work.

  • Leadership development

Finally, reverse mentoring is a highly effective way of developing leadership skills in younger employees. By giving graduates and new joiners the additional responsibility of being a mentor, they have a platform to increase their communication skills, practice empathy, learn the art of asking good questions, and generally become more self-aware – all of which are vital skills of a good leader.

Naturally, the mentor will also be learning a lot from their mentee as they build their relationship. If they are mentoring someone senior who has been in the business a long time, they can also act as a role model who can increase their aspirations for leadership within the company. Running a reverse mentoring programme to develop future leaders can therefore also positively impact retention.

How to set up a reverse mentoring programme:

So you've decided reverse mentoring would be a good initiative for your organisation, now what?

Here are 5 simple steps you can take to set up your reverse mentoring programme:

Step 1: Outline the objective

Before anything, define the purpose behind the programme. Identify which use of reverse mentoring is most critical to your business, and then outline what success would look like and how you will measure it.

I.e. Objective of programme: Digital skills

Method: The reverse mentoring programme will pair junior employees with advanced digital skills with more senior employees with weak digital skills. The mentors will offer training and support in digital areas the mentees want to develop.

Success: The mentees would have a greater understanding of digital areas by the end of the programme, and increased confidence discussing technology.

Measure: Surveys and digital literacy tests before and after the programme.

Step 2: Design the reverse mentoring programme

Once you've got the basics mapped out, it's time for all the other details. Here you need to outline:

  • Who will be on the programme?
  • Are you selecting participants?
  • How many spaces will be available?
  • Will it be a set length or on-going?
  • How do people sign up?
  • What is the expected commitment?
  • How will you monitor progress?

The answers to these questions will naturally vary business to business and depending on the objective of the programme. It's important to be as detailed as possible at this stage of planning to help your reverse mentoring programme run as smoothly as possible.

Step 3: Recruit mentors and mentees

Depending whether your programme is open (anyone can apply) or closed (selected participants) you'll be onboarding mentors and mentees differently.

Using a mentoring software makes thing easier, as you can simply send out a link for people to sign up and make a profile, and within minutes they can be matched with a mentor / mentee.

When doing things manually, it will take a little longer. Promote the programme on internal channels, or reach out directly to selected employees to ask them to be a part of the initiative. Remember to communicate the benefits of reverse mentoring and highlight the skills and experience they will gain.

Step 4: Matching Mentors and Mentees

An important part of setting up a reverse mentoring programme is deciding how you will match the mentors and mentees. This again may vary depending how many participants there are on the programme, and how they have been selected.

Typically, matches are made based on the skill set of the mentor, and the desired improvement areas of the mentee, as well as personality traits and common interests. Programme managers can either do this manually, using spreadsheets and their own intuition of who could make a good match, or using a mentoring software. The issue with matching mentors and mentees manually is the risk of subconscious bias and favouritism. For example, if the person doing the matching knew some participants personally but had never met others, their choice of mentor/mentee could be affected.

Guider uses a matching algorithm to accurately match people with the best suited mentors for them, removing human bias and supporting inclusivity.

Step 5: Launch and monitor the reverse mentoring programme

Once your participants are matched, you can officially launch the programme! It's good to commemorate the launch in some way to make participants feel like they're part of something and build a sense of community on the programme. This will help to increase commitment and maintain momentum as the relationship develops.

In order to get off to a good start, provide support and resources to the mentors and mentees to help them navigate and build their new professional relationship.

Note: this is crucial when the reverse mentoring programme is focused on diversity and inclusion. Both mentor and mentee will require training on approaching and discussing uncomfortable topics, empathy, self-awareness, and what to do if the sessions are not going well.

Track how frequently the mentors and mentees are meeting, and develop a good system for receiving feedback from the participants to know if the programme is working towards your desired business objective. As mentoring is very qualitative, programmes are traditionally difficult to measure, which is where mentoring software again offers a great deal of insight and support.

Finally, continue to monitor progress of the participants and measuring success of the reverse mentoring programme against your objective. If you need further reading on how to start a mentoring programme, this article is a good read.

Good luck!


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