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.

reverse mentoring pairs and executive mentee with a more junior mentor

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, it can help bridge gaps. Employees share insights while also gaining respect and perspective from other employees.

Keeping Up With Technological Advancements

Organizations the world over find that staying in step with the ever-changing technological advancements can prove challenging. Those immersed in the digital culture perceive that the most difficult leadership challenge they face is the rate of advancements in both the technology and digital industries. Some companies find that partnering seasoned IT employees with those newly graduated enables a flow of knowledge regarding best practices and emerging trends. Growth is seen in both groups while vital knowledge is passed on, and traditional methods or modes of operation are challenged.

Millennial and Gen Z Retention

Every employer knows that retention is an integral part of the company’s profitability. With Millennials and Generation Z overtaking the workforce, retention has never been more crucial. These two groups combined make up the largest portion of the labor force today. In 2018, the Deloitte Millennial Survey found that 43% of Millennials and 61% Gen Zers planned to leave their current job within the following two years.
The turnover rate for these two groups is so profound that they are generally referred to as the Job-Hopping Generations. What strategies can employers implement that will curb the tide of turnover rates?
Again, we find that reverse mentoring supports employers and companies by providing flexible environments, continued education, and open communication pathways between junior and senior employees, allowing Millennials and Gen Z members to feel more a part of the mission and goals for the organization.

Research has shown that it 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.

Fresh Perspective

The beauty behind reverse mentoring is its design. By matching peers of different generations, employers encourage a free flow of ideas and experience. Organizations looking to branch out from traditional or conventional workplace ideologies can expect a fresh perspective from those in younger generations. By tapping into the technology experience and insight of these two generations, you can close the gap that some of your other departments might be facing. Moreover, many in the younger generations are eager to offer their expertise to help improve outdated business practices and streamline bogged-down processes.

Empowers Emerging Leaders

A company that doesn’t actively seek out future leaders within the organization is playing a dangerous game that could lead to failure. Reverse mentoring helps organizations put a finger on emerging leaders and offer them an active opportunity to buy-in to the company. This type of program motivates them by valuing their work and ideas. Because most Millennials and Generation Z workers are not convinced that loyalty to one company is in their best interest, reverse mentoring creates a bond in the workplace, connecting them to others both their peers and company leaders.

Fosters Company Feedback

It would be normal for a more senior employee to feel awkward taking advice from someone younger. Likewise, a younger employee may feel that their advice won’t be received from others. In these cases, feedback can be stifled. By implementing reverse mentoring, feedback and candor are explicit in the rules of engagement. As long as both mentee and mentor acknowledge this, it generates an atmosphere that promotes continuous company feedback loops for improvements and innovations.

Breakdown Generational Stereotypes

No one likes to be stereotyped. From the more mature generations to the younger, tech-savvy generations, there are ample stereotypes to go around. However, these generalizations do nothing but hurt the productivity and growth of companies.
By partnering more experienced staff with the lesser experienced, reverse mentoring breaks these perceptions. True, Millennials and Gen Zers have grown up with technology at their fingertips, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate proven processes that have been around longer than them. Likewise, Baby Boomers might be set in their ways, but don’t count them out when it comes to learning new ways to reach consumers.

When and Why Should it be Used

Millennials and Generation Zers make up the largest portion of the workforce today. Not only do they bring immense tech knowledge to the table, but they also bring a fresh perspective on reaching the masses. That said, the biggest issue most companies face, is how to retain them for longer than the average two years.

Companies like Pershing, Proctor and Gamble, and Cisco systems asked this same question. However, they didn’t stop there. They sought a way to harness the skills and knowledge of these generations to help propel their companies into the future of technology. By implementing reverse mentoring, they were able to advance their technical skills while also cultivating an understanding of senior management.

Encourage Diversity & Inclusion

According to a recent study on diversity in the workforce, Forbes found that diverse and inclusive workforces were crucial to innovation to the majority of senior executives. But, how do companies break the cycle of promoting or hiring mostly from one demographic?

Reverse mentoring can play a vital role in encouraging diversity and inclusion within organizations. Take, for example, Proctor and Gamble. Through their “Mentoring Up” program, senior leaders and employees with disabilities were paired together. The outcome led to a discovery of internal videos that were not accessible to the hearing impaired. As a result, the videos were updated to add captioning.

Of course, this is not the only example of areas where diversity and inclusion can be improved upon by reverse mentoring. Gender roles, ethnicity, and age are other instances where gaps can be bridged by reverse mentorship pairings, opening up networking and visibility opportunities for underserved and underrepresented employees.

Closing the Generational Gap

Probably the most notable area improved by reverse mentoring includes the generational gap. By connecting senior executives with young tech-savvy employees companies can bring years of wisdom together with the accessibility of technology.

The final outcome is to mentor an older generation, wise masters of their domains, into confidence when working with popular new and emerging technologies. For example, a session might include performing tasks on mobile, tablet, or laptop. Likewise, in another session, the use of apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram might be the main focus. This process encourages executives to identify products that attract and retain significant daily audiences, while also helping them use these tools in their daily lives.
In return, the younger generation is able to absorb the knowledge and expertise of leadership and management from their mentee.

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?

Reverse Mentoring Best Practices

  • 1. 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.
  • 2. 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.
  • 3. Work on Communication
    Communication is the key to happy relationships, or in this case, working relationships. However, generational gaps tend to challenge communication in mentoring programs. For example, the means in which people prefer to communicate could create more problems than it solves. While younger people often communicate with short text via email or texting, their older counterparts typically choose to speak on the phone or in person. As a result, it’s valuable to both parties to establish which form of communication will be utilized throughout the process.
  • 4. Encourage Openmindedness
    Before beginning the reverse mentoring process, it’s imperative that the mentee and mentor agree to being open to learning from one another. Active listening is a fundamental part of being openminded. Being engaged in the conversation and listening with intent shows the speaker you care about what they are sharing. You also want to put away any preconceived ideas. This will help you listen with an open mind.When sharing your thoughts and ideas remain calm and don’t get frustrated. Some skills are harder to learn for others. Practice patience and communicate with tact. Above all else, remember that positive reinforcement goes a long way. Be sure to give feedback that is both constructive and encouraging.
  • 5.Train Both Parties in Their Roles
    Before beginning any mentorship program, the parties involved must know their individual roles. Reverse mentorship is no different, in fact, it might need more clarification than its counterpart. It might be difficult for a mentor with less seniority to feel comfortable correcting a senior executive mentee. Likewise, seasoned staff may have a hard time remaining quiet and receiving instruction when they are used to leading others.
  • 6. 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.
  • 7. Start Small
    When developing reverse mentoring relationships, you want to create an environment that is safe for all involved. This, however, can be tricky. Starting small is one way to ensure this happens. Begin by building a small pilot program. Keep the participation level to a manageable number and ask for feedback regularly. Once it’s successfully completed, you can use your initial participants for launching the program to a larger group.
  • 8. Track and Measure Mentoring Outcomes
    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.

How Should You Measure Reverse Mentoring?

To ensure the success of your reverse mentoring program, you’ll want to take frequent measurements of the engagement levels. If your mentorship program is lacking either mentees or mentors, it’s safe to say you will need to make some changes. One of the easiest ways to track engagement is through communication. Obviously, this includes correspondence through text or email. However, you will want to keep track of set tasks, completed tasks, and events.

Individual and Company Goals

Another way to make your reverse mentoring program successful is to set both individual and company goals. The only way to know if your participants are benefitting is to track their progress. Start with an initial evaluation of both the mentor and mentee. From there you can set real goals based on where they are currently and where they see themselves at the end.

Setting goals for the company will look different from the individuals. While you desire to see personal development, the organizational goals go beyond the individuals to the program itself. Some companies find that they want a more diverse leadership team. This will include digging into the data and statistics, analyzing it all, and developing a strategy to meet that goal.

Reporting: Surveys and Reports

As mentioned above, digging into the data and statistics will help your company pinpoint specific areas to focus your reverse mentorship program. Where does this data come from? Sending out surveys creates a safe way to check the temperature of your company. Is retention an issue? Do your employees feel that they have the opportunity to move up in the company? Do different groups or departments feel valued?

Once you collect the information from the surveys, you need to analyze it. Reading the information may be hard, but it will help you build a report that will propel your mentorship program and your leadership. After you determine where to build your reverse mentor program, you can take more surveys and build more reports. When success is the goal, there is always room for growth.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Learn how software helps run reverse mentoring programs