What is Reverse Mentoring & When Do You Need It?

What is Reverse Mentoring & When Do You Need It?

I have been part of leadership teams in organisations with other grey-haired folks like myself, wherein a younger member would be introduced to our team to coach us on aspects we were not familiar with and could use more counsel around. That was the introduction of the concept of reverse mentoring for me and I have since then been a great advocate of it. Let me elaborate further.

What is it exactly?

Reverse mentoring or reverse coaching is essentially when a junior employee is appointed to act as a mentor to senior executives or leaders in the organisation. This is usually done to bring in a fresh perspective for the leaders that they would not be privy to due to a generational gap – for instance with regards to technology and social media.

According to this article, reverse mentoring is also a great way to increase the visibility of minority employees for future leadership opportunities, thus supporting diversity initiatives.

The idea with reverse mentoring is not only to bring in a fresh new perspective but also to challenge the hierarchy of the organisation by going outside the formal organisational construct.

Why reverse mentoring?

Well, simply put, reverse mentoring (or reverse coaching) helps bring in multiplicity of views and opinions for a well-rounded perspective. Doing so helps the much senior leadership be in touch with the new entrants to not only bring in the younger & newer skills & perspectives, but to also reduce the hierarchical gap between senior leadership and junior management.

When this gap is reduced and the accessibility to the senior-most leadership is improved, this creates an atmosphere of transparency and trust among the younger employees, thus increasing the possibility of them staying with the organisation longer and seeing value in being part of it – which in turn helps create potential leaders of tomorrow.

When is it applicable?

Large organisation: Reverse coaching is applicable when it’s an organisation of a large size wherein there are multiple layers between the senior-most and junior-most persons. This model will not work in a start-up or small organisation where there are a handful of employees who get the opportunity to interact with each other regularly.

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Geographical distance: This can also be valuable when teams in an organisation are geographically spread far apart (a common occurrence ever since the pandemic) and there is lack of opportunities to have regular and substantial interactions.

Silo’d organisations: Here let me take the example of the advertising industry to elaborate. Imagine the Junior Account Executive being assigned to reverse coach the Creative Head in a leading ad agency! An unimaginable scenario if you’re familiar with the inner workings of an advertising agency (the accounts & creative teams are often at loggerheads with each other!). And while the idea is provocative, if done intentionally and with careful deliberation can bring in surprisingly positive results on the other side.

How is it done?

Some important things to keep in mind when setting up reverse mentoring

  • The program has to be structured properly
  • It should be time-bound – typically a 6-month window is good
  • Must function with a set of do’s (for instance, the reverse coach must be an active part of each meeting, they should journal the entire process & experience of reverse coaching, and should get the right ambience to be able to speak and express freely) and don’t’s (for instance, no access to client confidential material or sensitive personnel data)
  • It is recommended to be done on a rotational basis, i.e. these mentors can be picked from the cohort of top young talent recognised by the organisation on a semi-annual basis. The more diverse the picks, the better!

Success Stories!

Reverse mentoring is not a new concept and has been utilised by many large organisations to their benefit. Let me bring up a few examples that could help elucidate the concept better:

  • Heineken – According to this article on Together Platform, Heineken has been running a reverse mentoring program since April 2021. When surveyed, 86% of mentees (senior leaders) wanted to connect with more junior employees to gain new skills and experiences from the next generation of talent.
  • Caterpillar – This organization has had success with their mentoring programs. Vice President of Caterpillar’s Large Power Systems Division, Tana Utley has said that millennials see the work world differently than other generations, which is vital for senior leaders to understand.
  • GE – The company’s global managing partner Andrew Ballheimer had a reverse mentoring experience with his mentor MaameYaa Kwafo-Akoto – a young woman from a working-class Ghanaian family. She is said to have enjoyed the opportunity to give back to her employer and to help others understand the experience of minority, working moms. You can read more about the journey here in this articlewritten in the Financial Times.
  • PwC – PwC launched its reverse mentoring program in 2014 as part of its diversity and inclusion drive at its international locations. Participants have come back saying it has positively impacted inclusivity, skills development, and a culture of learning within the company.

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