Reflecting on a list of workplace techniques that have consumed HR leaders in recent times, ‘reverse mentoring’ stands in contrast to some of the more radical trends. Some of these include calls for the abolishment of performance ratings, the elimination of job titles and even experimentation with a system of self-governance in some organisations. The boldness of these trends has certainly invited a healthy dose of controversy, debate, and generally polarised opinions. On the other hand, these days most can see the clear benefits of reverse mentoring, which sits within the mentoring literature as an alternative form of mentoring. It encourages partnering a junior employee as mentor to a senior executive as mentee who learns from the mentor’s expertise or generational perspective. In what follows, you will find some thoughts on the practice and how to get the most out of it.

Reverse Mentoring is not a Replacement for Traditional Mentoring

Jack Welch of GE first introduced the concept of reverse mentoring over a decade ago to help his senior employees get to grips with the phenomenon of the Internet. The idea today is to pair a willing junior employee, typically a millennial who has grown up with social media, with a seasoned executive, typically a baby boomer who hasn’t. The resulting information sharing and transfer of knowledge is only the start of the many benefits of reverse mentoring; however, the practice should not replace traditional mentoring, as this still has an important role to play in the workplace.

Reverse Mentoring can be Informal or Formal

On a recent Skype call with a San Francisco-based friend who works for a cloud computing company, I heard a first-hand account of reverse mentoring from the perspective of a 30-something who mentors a senior leader in her mid 50’s. “It actually started out quite informally. She (the senior leader) would often drop by and ask questions about new technologies, trends or even buzzwords and we would just have a conversation, and we’ve retained that feel to what has now become a formal company programme.”

When the company decided to implement a formal reverse mentoring programme, the two volunteered. These days they meet for a session once a month and typically cover a diverse range of topics including: what millennials are interested in, what they are looking for, what the business can do to appeal to this group from an employer branding perspective, and also what the company can do to better service millennials as customers or potential customers. The mentor sets the agenda for each session and ensures that it meets her mentee’s expectations. In exchange for insights on how the younger age group thinks and operates, the senior leader provides valuable leadership insights and guidance on industry best practices.

Pointers to Remember when Implementing a Formal Programme

Many organisations may already have informal reverse mentoring relationships in place, where HR is not involved. For companies seeking to formalise a reverse mentoring programme, it seems that it can be achieved with minimal fuss. Some key pointers to remember to ensure a successful reverse mentoring relationship include:

  • Not all senior executives will welcome the idea of being mentored by a junior employee, so invitations to participate as a volunteer are important;
  • Senior leaders should be reminded to consciously take a ‘listen and learn’ approach, even if their natural inclination is to direct the conversation;
  • Create a sense of informality to foster greater openness and sharing of information, whether these sessions happen in person or virtually.

Harness the Power of Your Millennial Employees

There are many generalisations, both positive and negative, about what makes millennials ‘tick’. There is no doubt that this group does have certain specific characteristics that are unique to their generation, and there is much to learn from them. For anyone who still has doubts about the benefits of reverse mentoring, Michael Lindenmayer, in his article for Forbes on ‘The Five Powers of Reverse Mentors’, provides some nice insights into the powerful qualities inherent in millennials and asks that senior executives take note and harness these. By doing so they may benefit by learning how to:

  1. Live richer, more fulfilling personal and professional lives by following the ethos that the generation of ideas is just as important, if not more so, than the accumulation of financial wealth;
  2. ‘Hang out’ (aka work) almost anywhere and still generate desired results;
  3. Use successful shortcuts or ‘life hacks’ to do it all, as illustrated in books such as ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’;
  4. ‘Curate’ the way digital natives do using the plethora of digital information, tools and expertise available to them;
  5. Experiment and accept that failure is a part of the process.

Reverse Mentoring can Boost Competitive Advantage

It is particularly interesting and encouraging to hear that HR leaders in Asia Pacific are embracing reverse mentoring programmes. Traditionally companies in the APAC region have largely operated within relatively hierarchical structures and more conventional mentoring relationships. Proactively looking for innovative approaches to Talent Management and leadership development in the form of reverse mentoring is a positive trend.

Recent research indicates that 75% of employees are projected to be millennials by 2030, making this the fastest growing generation in the workplace ever - twice as big as either Gen X or the Baby Boomers. In addition to making up the largest portion of the workforce, they will soon be the dominant generation in the global marketplace. Only when companies know what motivates this group, will they be able to market to them, so helping senior executives understand millennials may provide this insight - and an edge over the competition. Achieving business objectives and increasing your competitive advantage are potential key benefits that cannot be underestimated.

Final Thoughts

In this volatile economy, learning and sharing across the generations is critical, as each has much to offer. With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that reverse mentoring will be on the top of the new years’ resolution lists for many.