Reverse mentoring – providing senior employees with juniors as mentors – provide senior leaders with a fresh perspective on how life and work looks from the position of the juniors in the organisation. Reverse mentoring can build bridges between generations, provide new leadership insight to both senior mentees and junior mentors, foster a more inclusive work culture, and increase retention.
However, reverse mentoring does not simply happen by calling assigning a junior to be a mentor for a senior. So, what is needed to establish a successful reverse mentoring programme?
Keys to successful reverse mentoring
An article in Harvard Business Review[i] presents three critical elements in relation to establishing successful reverse mentoring programmes: the right match, preparing the junior for the mentor role, ensuring commitment from the senior mentees.
The right match is crucial
Reverse mentoring in principle is about juniors mentoring seniors, but there can be more diversity dimensions included in the matching to make it successful and full of learning. Look at matching across departments, divisions, gender, and location – consider which dimensions will provide the best match in terms of potential learning. Additionally, off-line matching is a must to ensure confidentiality and openness – especially for the mentees (the seniors). Off-line is about matching outside of the hierarchical power structure, i.e., a senior manager should not be matched with an employee directly below a direct report of the senior manager. That would compromise confidentiality and potentially pose a conflict of interest.
Address mentee’s fear and distrust
Seniors as mentors can be fearful of revealing their lack of knowledge, thinking that as mentors they should have all the answers. When seniors are mentees, the fear can stem from thinking they should already know everything because they are seniors, so they feel they lose face when they reveal their vulnerabilities to the junior mentor. To overcome this challenge, it is important to prepare the senior mentees well and to openly address these fears. It can be very rewarding for both seniors and juniors when seniors openly share the uncertainties and lack of knowledge – it can actually strengthen the bond between the two and they both reveal themselves as fallible human beings.
Ensure strong commitment from mentees
According to Harvard Business Review, “the number one reason that reverse mentoring programs fail is that the executives [the mentees] don’t prioritize the relationship.” This corresponds to what we see in reverse mentoring programmes and in other types of mentoring programmes. Senior executives – whether as mentors or mentees – have difficulty prioritizing their time. They have a multitude of stakeholders, internally and externally, that require their attention and prioritizing one2one meetings that are not explicitly connected to company performance is difficult for them. In terms of reverse mentoring, when senior executives become mentees, their fear of seeming less than competent in the eyes of the junior mentees can negatively influence their motivation to prioritize the mentoring. To overcome this challenge, training of both seniors and juniors are necessary, providing both with insight into challenges, tools for structuring sessions and ways to create trustful and safe relationships.
Mentors cannot drive the process alone
In many traditional mentoring programmes, the approach is that mentees should drive the process. We believe that this is a mistake! In traditional mentoring programmes, mentees are the juniors and expecting them to drive the process, is almost like saying to the mentors: “just lean back and let the mentees do all the work.” It may actually feel like allowing mentors to be less engaged. Additionally, in traditional mentoring programmes, mentors are the seniors and the more powerful persons, which will influence the mentees in the direction of being less forceful as “drivers of the process,” since mentees usually do not wish to bother mentors too much, and “steal their time”. Of course, this approach only reveals the assumptions behind the programme design, namely that mentees are learning, and mentors are investing their time helping others – and mentor’s time is a limited resource. These assumptions are then influencing the approach and behaviour of the mentees.
That brings us to the reverse mentoring programmes, where the juniors – who are now the mentors – again are expected to drive the process. It may work, but it is not helpful or efficient for the mentoring relationship. Mentors and mentees together are responsible for establishing a sound and safe relationship and for a successful collaboration with learning outcome for both – and training will help ensure that both are motivated, engaged and take responsibility.