How to Start a Reverse Mentoring Program

How to Start a Reverse Mentoring Program

Mentoring is a valuable workplace tool to help foster learning and tap into employee knowledge and skills. Aside from providing mentees with much-needed guidance, mentors also experience boosted confidence and leadership skills. One study even found that 87% of mentors and mentees feel empowered by their mentoring relationships and have developed greater confidence.

But what if you reversed it? What if the mentor became the mentee and vice versa? This is called reverse mentoring. 

Two business professionals happily discussing over a tablet in a well-organized office.

The reverse mentoring concept offers the same benefits as traditional mentoring, but with additional perks like cross-functionality and inclusivity. Reverse mentoring in the workplace helps to empower those who typically don’t hold much power and provides leadership with insights into all levels of the organization. This article explores the benefits of reverse mentoring along with tips and techniques for implementing it successfully in the workplace. 

What Is Reverse Mentoring? 

To understand reserve mentoring, let’s first explore some of the more traditional mentoring approaches.

  • One-on-one mentoring: This is the most common type of mentoring where an experienced professional mentors a younger, inexperienced professional
  • Group mentoring: When one to two mentors meet with a group of four or five mentees in a group session
  • Training-based mentoring: When a mentor trains a mentee on a specific topic for skill-building, like an apprentice following an experienced electrician to learn their specific skills
  • Executive mentoring: This takes place among top-level employees to guide each other on leadership tasks and techniques

Mentoring can be as informal as a family friend giving you career advice or as structured as having required contractual agreements between co-workers. It can also last for weeks, months, or years. 

Traditionally, mentoring has been used as a way to build skills, seek career advice, and improve work processes. But as reverse mentoring has become more and more popular, organizations have realized they can reap a lot more benefits and address some particular workplace challenges by utilizing this fresh mentoring method. 

So what is reverse mentoring in the workplace? Reverse mentoring (also known as upward mentoring) is when executives and C-level employees are the mentees of lower or entry-level employees. This often means placing an older executive with a younger millennial employee to learn about technology, social media, or trends in the market. 

This was popularized by Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, when he paired 500 senior employees with junior employees who could teach them about technological advances and tools. This method has become increasingly popular as workplaces have experienced more multi-generational diversity and placed stronger emphasis on learning and development. 

This mentoring method is particularly useful in workplaces with intergenerational divides between high-level and low-level employees. By placing high-level employees in a position to listen and learn, and low-level employees in a position to teach, greater understanding and deeper insights can be gained. Reverse mentoring is also a great tool for addressing racial, gender, and other inequalities in the workplace. 

The Benefits of Reverse Mentoring 

Reverse mentoring helps to close generational gaps within the workplace by making older employees more knowledgeable of modern technology and tactics while also empowering younger employees to grow as leaders. Here are some of the ways reverse mentoring can benefit mentees, mentors, and organizations as a whole. 

For the Mentee

  • Stay up-to-date: Younger generations are poised to educate others on technology and social media use in business. Tapping into the digital native generation, like millennials and Gen Z, helps to build tech-savvy skill sets in older generations. 
  • Get a different perspective: Many executives get caught up with busy schedules and spend too much time focusing on the big picture. Taking quality time to hear from and consider what is occurring at other levels of the organization can cultivate a more holistic, compassionate perspective. 
  • Engage teams: Having a younger, lower-level mentor can help leadership understand why some employees grow disengaged or leave the organization. 

For the Mentor

  • Build leadership skills: By practicing one’s teaching and communication skills in a trusting relationship, mentors build confidence and leadership skills. An older, more experienced mentee would likely share some leadership pointers and tips for educating others. 
  • Have a voice: Mentorship relationships act as safe spaces to vocalize thoughts and concerns. Building a trusting relationship with a mentee allows younger mentors to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and thoughts. 
  • Foster relationships: Getting one-on-one or even group mentoring time with executive and C-level co-workers is a way to show one’s worth and establish a valuable relationship. Breaking the divide between high and low-level employees fosters cross-functional, multi-level collaboration in the organization. 

For the Organization

  • Improve diversity and inclusion: The younger workforce is more likely to embody diversity, including ethnically and racially-diverse populations and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Reverse mentoring is an opportunity to have important conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and give the younger generation a voice to do so. 
  • Continuous learning: In order to foster an environment of continuous learning, a growth mentality must run through all levels of an organization. Having older, high-level employees take the time to listen and learn from younger employees sets a strong example for continuous learning and a growth mindset. 
  • Higher employee retention: According to a 2020 Deloitte Survey, 26% of millennials planned to leave their job within a year. Millennial and Gen Z employees are not willing to stay with organizations that lack engagement, have poor leadership, or don’t offer the growth opportunities they seek. Reverse mentoring is uniquely poised to address these issues and increase younger employee retention. 
  • Improve digital capabilities: Most reverse mentoring programs are focused on learning technology skills. Combining the tech-savviness of the millennial and Gen Z age group with the experience and strategizing prowess of older generations can lead to a digital transformation for an organization.

Challenges Can Arise

Oftentimes, younger employees are not viewed as experts or struggle to communicate their thoughts in an effective way. Younger employees may also feel shy or self-conscious around people more senior than them in the organization. Conversely, older employees can get stuck in their ways and be unwilling to learn new skills, especially from someone younger. 

Sharing the benefits of reverse mentoring and explaining the valuable role each employee plays in its success can help to mitigate challenges and empower the workforce to participate. Be sure to cultivate a safe and open environment for employees to partake in reverse mentoring for optimal outcomes. 

How to Start a Reverse Mentoring Program

Creating a reverse mentoring program is all about finding what works for your business. While some organizations may seek to retain millennials by giving them more of a voice, another company may seek to boost digital skill sets. A company can also have more than one goal for starting a reverse mentoring program. What is important, is that the purpose and goals for the program stay the focus of all mentorship sessions. 

Here are steps to take to identify the type of program you need and implement it effectively. 

1. Identify your purpose: Every mentorship program, especially reverse mentorship, should stem from a purpose, a reason why you are doing this program. Start by evaluating your workplace and culture. Identify what the top needs for your organization are that reverse mentoring can address, such as:

    • Closing the generational divide
    • Empowering younger employees
    • Establishing a growth mindset in older employees
    • Building a more comprehensive digital strategy
    • Prioritizing social media and analytics for clients
    • Addressing inequality concerns and facilitating inclusivity

Whatever it may be, keep the needs of your organization and the purpose of the mentorship program in the forefront of your mind as you build it out. Be sure this purpose is communicated to participants throughout the program’s duration. 

2. Establish parameters and expectations: Decide how the mentorship program will play out by asking the following questions:

    • Who will participate?
    • How often will they meet?
    • Where will they meet?
    • What should they discuss?
    • Does there need to be a criterion in place for mentoring sessions?

This is the playbook for the program and it should be well thought out and established from the beginning. Also, consider what talking points you would like mentorship sessions to cover. Be sure these are also communicated to participants regularly. Consider if there are any trainings or skills your team needs developed for the program to be a success. 

3. Make some matches: Having mentorship relationships that are compatible is key. Mentees should consist of C-level employees, executives, and senior management. Pair people with reasonable differences in job level. For example, you shouldn’t pair the CEO with an intern. Instead, maybe pair them with an assistant director while a senior manager pairs with the intern. You can match people in a few different ways:

    • Self-matching: Allow the mentees to choose their mentors or vice versa.
    • Administrator matching: Allow administrators to choose who will pair together based on role and skill sets. 
    • Hybrid matching: Do a little self-matching mixed with administrator matching.

You may also want to consider a program “champion.” This champion can be anyone in the organization who believes in the program and wants to see it succeed. This person will follow up with participants and give advice when needed. 

They can also help with tracking the program’s success and collecting feedback. Importantly, they will also regularly remind people about the program’s purpose and its benefits so people don’t lose steam. 

4. Create an agreement: Have participants sign an agreement to partake in the mentorship program. This does not need to be a intensely formal or even legally binding contract. It is simply a way for employees to make a commitment and to establish a little accountability as well. The agreement should lay out all the details so employees understand expectations before committing, such as:

    • Goals for the program
    • When and where to meet
    • A statement on open, honest communication 
    • A statement on confidentiality, if deemed helpful

5. Launch and track: Kick the program off with a party to match up mentor partners and start off on a fun note. As the program moves forward, continually assess how it is going and make adjustments to it as needed. Use surveys, interviews, and focus groups to collect feedback on the program’s progress.

Examples of Reverse Mentoring

The type of mentorship program you implement depends on the organization and the unique needs of its team. You could have people within the same department mentor one another or you could pair partners from different departments altogether. You could have mentors share information on social media trends, industry tech available, or thoughts on the organization’s culture. Whatever the case, your organization’s needs should always drive your reverse mentorship program. 

Here are some real-life reverse mentoring examples of how it has been implemented at other companies:

  • Caterpillar: This company had a traditional mentoring program in place that yielded great results. So, they decided to switch things up and try reverse mentoring to address workplace culture and inclusivity topics. They found that millennials had a different perspective on the work world that senior executives could learn from. 
  • Pershing: This financial services company implemented reverse mentoring and experienced a 96% retention rate among the 77 millennials who participated. 
  • Procter & Gamble: Their reverse mentoring program paired senior leaders with employees with disabilities. Through this program, the company identified inaccessibility issues within the workplace and addressed them directly.
  • Shook Hardy & Bacon: This law firm paired minority lawyers with senior leaders to discuss diversity and inclusivity in a safe, open space. 

The world has evolved over the generations, and there are many new and exciting trends that millennials and Gen Z can bring to the workplace, such as creating a more inclusive environment and utilizing technology to the fullest. 

This is not to say that older generations do not have valuable insights to share as well, quite the contrary. Rather, the older mentees in a reverse mentorship lead by example, showing younger generations how to listen, grow, and learn, while also spreading some of their valuable experiences and knowledge. 

As you can see from the reverse mentoring examples, based on the purpose behind the program, a reverse mentorship program can yield a range of results. Some common outcomes organizations seek through reverse mentoring are supporting equity and inclusivity, closing generational gaps, retaining millennial employees, enhancing openness and creativity, and empowering emerging leaders. Use these reverse mentoring ideas to build a program that fits your organization’s needs. 

Upskill Your Teams with KnowledgeCity

A key motive for most organizations that implement reverse mentoring is to improve employee skills. While tapping into your current workforce talent is wonderful, there are also additional resources that can add to upskilling talent. 

KnowledgeCity offers an arsenal of courses, videos, and articles to help with reverse mentoring training and skill development. To better prepare your team for a reverse mentoring program, download our free guide to Coaching Strategies for Managers.

Learning and development has grown to become a cornerstone of business success. The more an organization invests in the growth of its talent, the happier its team and the more successful its business will be. Use KnowledgeCity’s resources to prepare employees for a reverse mentoring program by learning leadership skills, coaching tips, or the importance of open, curious mindsets. 

Implementing a reverse mentorship program doesn’t have to be expensive or even too time-consuming. Also, video conferencing and digital communication make it easy to mentor from anywhere in the world. Reverse mentoring helps to build collaboration, new skill sets, and a mindset for continual learning in the workplace, all while exploring new possibilities for success.

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