Reverse mentoring isn’t a brand new concept but it’s experiencing a rebirth in popularity thanks, in part, to the 2015 movie The Intern, starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. In the film, Anne Hathaway plays the young CEO of an e-commerce startup and Robert De Niro plays a retired executive. Long story short, Robert De Niro’s character applies to a senior intern program, is assigned to work with CEO Anne Hathaway, and reverse mentoring ensues. The movie never directly references reverse mentoring, but the model and the effects are essentially the same.
In a typical reverse mentoring program, the younger, less experienced employee mentors the older more seasoned employee and both gain invaluable skills and knowledge. But reverse mentoring isn’t just the stuff of movies; it’s an important part of cultivating an effective talent strategy within the workplace.
What Is Reverse Mentoring?
First popularized by Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, reverse mentoring at its core is the concept that everyone plays a valuable role in the success of a company. A standard partnership pairs an older, more experienced executive with a younger, more junior employee. As the name suggests, the younger employee serves as the mentor but the program benefits both parties.
What Are the Benefits of Reverse Mentoring?
Reverse mentoring gives senior executives an opportunity to stay up-to-date with the latest business technologies and workplace trends. It also helps junior employees see the larger picture and gives them a glimpse of macro-level management issues. For companies with a chasm between their older and younger employees, reverse mentoring can help bridge gaps. Employees share insights while also gaining respect and perspective from other employees.
Research has shown that reverse mentoring increases employee retention of Gen Y and millennial employees while also providing senior executives with the satisfaction of sharing their knowledge with a younger generation. This application has proved especially useful in today’s modern workforce environment of technology-savvy millennials and baby boomers in leadership positions. It increases multi-generational engagement and reduces conflicts, with the added benefit of giving seasoned employees, who might be close to retirement, a forum to pass on their expertise to a new wave of executives.
Does Reverse Mentoring Really Work?
Yes. Leading organizations such a Hewlett Packard, Ogilvy and Mather, Cisco and Hartford Financial Services, sing the praises of reverse mentoring.
Ogilvy and Mather, one of the leading ad agencies in the world, launched a program that helps senior execs enhance their social media skills. Spencer Osborn, Worldwide Managing Director of Ogilvy and Mather points out that not only did the program teach him to jazz up his Tweets, it also helped boost morale and retention of younger employees at the firm.
When Hartford Insurance started a reverse mentoring program in 2011, the aim was to train C-suite execs in the tools and culture of social media. With entry-level employees in their twenties as mentors, the business leaders soon began to appreciate the power of “searching” for answers on the spot and they wanted others in the company to benefit from the same flexibility. As a result, they unlocked social networks that were previously off-limits to Hartford employees.
So what goes into creating a reverse mentoring program?
Tips for Starting a Reverse Mentoring Program
- Make the Perfect Match
Reverse mentoring involves two people with extremely different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, creating the ideal mentoring partnership is vital. Choose mentors who possess good social skills and have the confidence to interact with and teach senior management.
- Set a Level Playing Field
Start the reverse mentoring program with a fun and informal orientation. The orientation should give the mentors and mentees an opportunity to interact with each other as individuals—not as the boss of the whole place or as the newbie who’s fresh out of school. This will set the stage for the whole program and, in time, help connect people from traditional hierarchies.
- Set Specific Formal Goals but Allow for Individual Innovation
It’s important to identify what the reverse mentoring program aims to achieve for all participants. However, each mentoring partnership is unique and participants will likely end up benefiting from the program in unforeseen ways. For example, a young mentor might help a C-suite exec choose a new cell phone or a CEO might share tips on how a new entrant can advance his or her career. It’s always important that your mentoring program be flexible to leave room for surprise benefits.
- Set Specific Formal Goals but Allow for Individual Innovation
We always say, measure, measure, measure! It’s the only way to determine what your results might be and prove to senior leadership that your program is working. The key to this is determining what you’ll be measuring. Something like employee satisfaction, while nice to have, probably won’t be enough to prove the importance of your program. We suggest focusing on tracking metrics like retention of employees who participated in the program as compared with those who didn’t. Of course, it’s also important to track other information too, such as changes that are happening as a result of the program and positive feedback, especially from the higher-ups who may be getting mentored for the first time in years.
A Key Component of Cultivating a Talent Strategy
Remember, reverse mentoring is just one aspect of a comprehensive talent strategy and it’s important to build that out. Comprehensive talent strategies are imperative for grooming and retaining employees. They are beneficial in providing both a clear path to success for employees, as well as cultivating successful long-term employees. Research finds that organizations that perform well on business outcomes have a talent strategy and we hope that you’ll implement reverse mentoring as part of that.
Reverse mentoring is an innovative use of mentoring. It emphasizes the idea that learning never stops while supporting the idea that the young have something to teach, which is why we see so much interest around it. Consider implementing at your organization to support your talent development goals.