Pioneered by Jack Welch at General Electric in the 1990s, reverse mentoring is the practice of pairing established, sometimes older employees with newer, less experienced personnel to exchange knowledge and experience. The twist on ‘classic mentoring’ is based on the reciprocal expectation that the new, or younger employee will have as much to share ‘up’ as the more experienced individual can offer the other way. The practice of reversing the traditional mentoring process is becoming increasingly relevant in the post pandemic environment. Reverse mentoring can help organisations deal with the challenges of hybrid working, technology driven change, diversity and inclusion, and to unpick the challenges of a multi generation workforce- with today’s organisations seeing as many as five generations coexisting in the workplace.
According to industry body, Business in the Community (BITC), ‘Recently, reverse mentoring has evolved to comprise senior leaders being mentored by a more junior colleague who, from a diversity and inclusion perspective, is different from them in some way, and therefore experiences their career differently.’ The practice of reverse mentoring to bridge the generation gap is well documented in talent management. Each new generation entering the world of work brings with it a range of changing expectations. As Gen Z enter the workforce their priorities around purpose, inclusion, sustainability, work life balance and so on has an impact on policymaking and working culture, at the same time, senior leaders are being asked to adapt to increasingly technology led environments and to shape career paths which are nonlinear. Deloitte research predicts as many as half of millennials and Gen Z workers will leave their jobs within five years if they don’t feel heard on key priorities including environment, mental health and equality. While a lack of diversity remains problematic for many organisations at senior executive level, reverse mentoring offers the opportunity to learn from a broader set of people across the workforce. From dialogue between generations to insights into the views and experiences of a range of minority or underrepresented groups, reverse mentoring exposes leaders to a range of perspectives and opinions.
Middlesex University uses reverse mentoring as part of its strategy to build greater diversity and inclusion across the organisation, ‘Equity, diversity and inclusion is an area in which is it particularly important for leaders to learn from colleagues who have different life experiences, and who experience the organisation in a different way to leaders who have perceived positional status.’ The reverse mentoring approach is sector agnostic and can work well in a range of organisation settings, from FMCG corporates to professional services firms. Research has also shown that in highly regulated and often hierarchical contexts, reverse mentoring also has much to offer. The first NHS feasibility study of reverse mentoring in a clinical setting found that reverse mentoring helped reduce hierarchical differences, and that relationships were not negatively affected, ‘Given the healthcare workforce currently consists of up to five generations and is becoming more diverse as it includes under-represented groups, reverse mentoring can be deployed to open communication and encourage solidarity across generations, as best practice, technology, and attitudes change over time’. Interestingly, the research suggests reverse mentoring is more flexible than feedback systems which tend to be one way and encourage a ‘tick box’ mentality, rather than establishing an environment for dialogue, conversations, insight and learning.
The impact of technologies in the workplace and the significant shift in working patterns hailed by the pandemic means organisations and their leaders need to be more adaptive, agile and responsive to disruptive factors, technologies and changing user needs. How might reverse mentoring play a part in this? And what does the power of reverse mentoring offer from an innovation point of view where diverse thinking and perspectives are imperative? Digital natives with different expectations of work, life and careers bring a world view that can helpfully challenge established orthodoxy. P&G use reverse mentoring to help leaders understand young people’s shopping habits better for example. Young people tend to be more comfortable with technologies having grown up with them, digital tools and platforms are woven into their social, education and cultural lives. This seemingly effortless assimilation of new technologies can sometimes be baffling to those who tend to spend their social time ‘offline’ in more analogue exchanges, or to those who grew up in a pre-internet world.
Reverse Mentoring in Practice
Reverse mentoring like its more traditional counterpart relies on trust and the creation of safe spaces for dialogue and discussion. Done well, reverse mentoring involves regular meetings of around an hour at a time, at regular 4–6-week intervals. It requires ground rules and contracting between mentees to ensure confidentiality and psychological safety for all involved. The matching process helps get things off to a positive start, alongside awareness of personal learning styles and approaches. There are few hard and fast rules about mentoring meetings, but a shared goal and purpose helps keep the right focus. Oftentimes organisation politics and context are important areas for discussion, and the basis from which new approaches, questions and alternatives can be explored, so training and support is essential for anyone considering engaging in this exercise. There is an art to asking open questions and to listening and responding in an appreciative way.
If reverse mentoring is designed to tackle specific challenges, for example discrimination or prejudice, care should be taken to brief all participants on policies and terminology, and to provide support on areas for discussion.
What are the benefits ?
Imperial College London cites the benefits of reverse mentoring including insight and awareness of senior leadership structures, decision making processes and the context within which organisation strategies are formulated. Mentors gain valuable feedback and are alerted to perspectives and experiences on how their messages and approaches are being heard and interpreted. There is also the benefit of broadening networks, the opportunity to understand the lived experience of employees in parts of the organisation with whom the participant may not otherwise frequently interact.
There are multiple ways in which reverse mentoring can work well for individuals and organisations to increase understanding about what different generations and groups value, or to broaden diversity and inclusion, or to share the impact of new technologies and changing workplace expectations.
Organisations are made up of people, which means the quality of our relationships, the extent to which we can understand and empathise with one another, value and appreciate alternative points of view and experiences really matters. Reverse mentoring is not the answer to everything, but like many changes, it starts with good conversations.
Business in the Community https://www.bitc.org.uk
Browne, I. (2021) ‘Exploring Reverse Mentoring; “Win-Win” Relationships in The Multi-Generational Workplace’, International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, (S15), pp.246-259.
Deloitte. The Deloitte global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey
Middlesex University https://www.mdx.ac.uk/about-us/equality-diversity-inclusion/reverse-mentoring-framework
Raju SA, Ching HL, Jalal M, et al Does reverse mentoring work in the NHS: a feasibility study of clinicians in practice. BMJ Open 2022;12