Reverse mentoring flips the script on traditional mentoring by having more junior-level employees serve as mentors to organization leaders (often in the C-suite). While these mentoring engagements can be about anything, they’re an incredibly important best practice for helping companies bridge the knowledge gaps that exist between leaders and their younger, often more diverse employees. This is why reverse mentoring is often seen in the light of DEI strategies.
In this post, we’ll explore more details about reverse mentoring, including:
- Defining what reverse mentoring
- Exploring what reverse mentoring can (and cannot) do for an organization
- Offering detailed best practice advice on how to make a reverse mentoring strategy that works
What Is Reverse Mentoring?
Reverse mentoring is a mentoring format where more junior-level employees serve as mentors for more senior-level team members. It’s important to note here that “more junior-level” and “more senior-level” does not always mean “new hires mentoring the CEO.” In fact, there are probably rare occasions where you’ll have a completely new employee serving as a mentor in a reverse mentoring relationship.
Instead, the minimum requirement for a reverse mentoring program is that the mentor is at a lower level of seniority than the mentee. That matching could ultimately lead to many different degrees of difference between mentor and mentee, such as:
- Associate-level mentor and Director-level mentee
- Manager-level mentor and Director-level mentee
- Associate-level mentor and Chief-level mentee
Again, the single-most important part of a reverse mentoring program is that the mentor is in a more junior-level position. Otherwise, it won’t fill the “reverse” requirement.
Why Use a Reverse Mentoring Program Strategy
We’ve established the basic definition of “what” it is, but many companies thinking about mentoring may wonder why anyone would need a reverse mentoring strategy.
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Of the many, many reasons that someone might use a reverse mentoring strategy, the most important include:
- Bridging generational gaps in knowledge and experience
- Enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals
- Fostering a learning culture that includes senior leaders
- Retaining junior-level talent through engagement and networking
- Identifying and engaging high-potential talent
- Driving innovation by exposing leaders to fresh ideas
Let’s examine each of these in a bit more detail.
Bridging the generation gap
Reverse mentoring programs can help bridge the gap between younger and older employees in a company. As of 2023, the average CEO was in their 50s. As it were, most CEOs are either within Gen X or Boomer generations. Reverse mentoring programs can help bridge the gap between these generations and the two generations below them, Millennials and Gen Z.
Younger generations often have a better grasp on emerging technologies, social media, and other engagement trends, which can be beneficial for senior executives to stay up to date with the latest developments.
Enhancing Diversity and Inclusion
Reverse mentoring programs can provide opportunities for diverse perspectives to be heard and valued. By pairing senior leaders with junior employees from different backgrounds and experiences, reverse mentoring can help build a more inclusive and welcoming workplace culture.
Fostering a learning culture: A company that embraces reverse mentoring demonstrates a commitment to ongoing learning and development. This can encourage all employees to adopt a growth mindset, seek out new learning opportunities, and keep up with the latest trends and developments in their field.
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Retaining top talent
Reverse mentoring can be an effective tool for retaining and engaging younger employees. By providing opportunities for junior employees to mentor senior leaders, companies can create a more supportive and rewarding environment that helps younger employees feel valued and invested in the company.
Engaging high-potential talent
Particularly for heavily matrixed organizations, high-potential talent is often difficult to spot and even more challenging to engage. Mentoring programs can help you give those junior-level employees who show a lot of leadership potential more engagement and visibility with executive leaders. Quite often, high-potential juniors have insights and strategies they can share and make some of the most valuable reverse mentors within your organization.
Reverse mentoring can help foster a culture of innovation within a company. By exposing senior leaders to new ideas and perspectives, they can gain insights into emerging trends and technologies that can help the company stay competitive and adapt to changing market conditions.
Best Practices and Benefits of Reverse Mentoring
My colleague Chris Browning regularly talks about conversations he’s been having with prospective clients about implementing a reverse mentoring program.
As Chris explains, he’s been very excited about the growing interest in this process. Reverse mentoring is getting more attention due in large part to the strategic thinking and plans these prospects have produced.
A reverse mentoring program intentionally goes against the traditional format (hence the name).
But at least one study has confirmed what many have discovered with internal data gathering: reverse mentoring reduces turnover rates, especially among younger workers within the Millennial generation.
However, because of how a normal reverse mentoring program is set up, with a more senior employee as the mentee and a more junior employee as the mentor, there may be some inherent discomfort for everyone involved.
So what’s a mentoring program administrator to do? Well, if you want your reverse mentoring program to be a success, here are 10 how-to tips that can help ensure your mentees and mentors discover the value and joy of mentoring.
Tips for Reverse Mentoring Programs a Success
Ideally, reverse mentoring is a low-risk, high-reward endeavor. That’s mostly true only if you establish and maintain the reverse mentoring relationships in a way that’s structured for success. The following tips should help you get started.
1. Beware role reversion in reverse mentoring
Leaders serving as mentees in reverse mentoring programs also run the risk of reverting to what reverse mentoring expert Patrice Gordon calls “role reversion.” This occurs when executive leaders, who are used to being “in charge” of relationships and engagement with junior-level employees, unconsciously switch from being a mentee to trying to offer advice to the mentor.
This is not how a reverse mentoring program should work. Leaders engaging in reverse mentoring programs need to be conscious of their role, and work hard to avoid trying to switch their role. While leaders may be experts, their role is to be the leaner and to grow, not to be the expert in the room.
A senior executive may struggle a bit with taking advice from someone who is lower in the organizational hierarchy. On the flip side, a more junior (and often younger) employee may not feel comfortable with giving feedback or challenging the thinking of someone who could potentially tank their career.
2. Set guidelines
First off, establish parameters for all of the mentoring relationships that will occur as part of your reverse mentoring program. Perhaps you want each pair to focus on helping the executive learn about social media, or maybe you want them to pay attention to identifying and leveraging a Millennial viewpoint on work-related topics.
No matter what the purpose is for the program, help your mentees and mentors understand what it is they are being asked to do so that they can begin their relationship with a common understanding of why they are meeting with one another.
Formalizing the goal-setting process in a reverse mentoring relationship is a good idea. Get everything on paper, and track progress toward those goals. That will keep the reverse mentoring relationship well-targeted and make it distinctly more measurable, regardless of whether you’re focusing on a qualitative or quantitative measurement approach (or both).
3. Accept feedback
As Harvard Business School professor Robert S. Kaplan explained in a McKinsey Quarterly article, the more senior an executive becomes, the harder it is to accept feedback. Consequently, learning how to properly accept feedback as an executive is important for both personal growth and organizational health.
Many executives are used to issuing orders but not necessarily taking feedback. It may be even harder when that feedback comes from a lower-level employee.
As a mentoring program administrator, it’s important that you help your executive mentees prepare for and be open to accepting feedback from their more junior mentors. Without having this mindset, the mentoring relationship could be doomed from the start.
To that end, you may need to help your executive mentees learn how to ask for and accept feedback within this type of mentoring dynamic. Harvard Business Review has some excellent strategies for executives who need to ask for and accept feedback.
4. Give reverse mentoring relationship feedback
In the same vein, it might be difficult, or at least uncomfortable, for the junior mentor to give their mentee (e.g., their CEO or VP or boss’s boss’s boss) feedback. Those fears are not totally unfounded. The most-reported type of complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is for workplace retaliation (55.8% of all complaints in 2020). No one wants to say the wrong thing or make a bad impression on the person in power who can make their work life hell or push them out of a job.
Nevertheless, the whole point of reverse mentoring is for the junior mentor to help the senior mentee learn something. Part of that learning experience requires giving feedback.
As the mentoring program administrator, you should help your mentees understand the mentoring role they are being asked to play and the tasks that will be expected of them. These new mentors might benefit from a brief training session on how to give effective feedback, and they may also need to explicitly hear that they are allowed and expected to give feedback to their executive-level mentee.
5. Hold a superior accountable
Related to giving superior feedback is holding a superior accountable. This might feel very uncomfortable for a junior mentor, but it goes to the heart of all good mentoring relationships.
Accountability is an important aspect of mentoring programs and has long been difficult to maintain and track with traditional mentoring program formats. Mentees need to be held accountable for their actions, promises, commitments, etc. It does not do anyone any good to have a mentee who does not follow through on their tasks or responsibilities.
The mentor must make sure that their mentee follows through as needed. In your role as mentoring program administrator, you can help make sure this happens by educating both the mentee and mentor on what is expected of them and how the power structure of the relationship should flow. It can also help for the mentoring pair to talk early on about expectations and how to support and prod one another when needed.
Ultimately, though, mentoring software might be the best solution to make accountability something that’s both actionable and trackable. Mentoring software allows your mentoring pairs to report progress toward established goals and even provides automated prompts for mentors and mentees to provide their requisite feedback or to keep track of goals in a timely manner.
6. Respect one another
Yes, some of the first few points can be uncomfortable or even awkward, but one factor will make them take shape in the positive manner they are intended: respect. Having respect for one another is a hallmark of a mentoring relationship, no matter who the mentee or mentor is.
Respect for one another will show up in several ways:
- How the pair speak to one another
- How the pair listens to one another
- How the pair treats one another
- How the pair treats the entire relationship
Without respect, mentoring pairs may not give or receive feedback in the spirit it is intended. Or perhaps they won’t believe the best of one another when one falls short of a commitment. As the mentoring program administrator, it is critical that you drive home the fact that respect for one another and the relationship must be front and center in all that the pair does in their mentoring relationship.
The great thing about mentoring is that it can help both mentors and mentees develop critical soft skills, including empathy, which is a fundamentally important skill for exhibiting respect in relationships.
7. Create a trusting relationship
With respect comes trust.
When mentees and mentors believe the best in someone and know they are open to giving or receiving feedback, open to learning from or teaching something to their partner and acting with the best intentions, they build trust in them. This trust may not come easily, but it is essential for a mentoring relationship to work.
Trust is hard to accomplish in a mentoring relationship without some semblance of vulnerability on both sides. Mentors and mentees must both be willing to let down some of their barriers and apprehensions about the relationship in order for trust to become firmly established.
In many ways, vulnerability is a type of intimacy (quite obviously a platonic intimacy in this sense). Research into creating healthy relationships points to two big goals for creating vulnerability: Disclosing information that includes (and doesn’t exclude) the partner and disclosing information that is specific (instead of general)
For example, a reverse mentoring relationship might serve the goal of helping executives better understand cultural norms in communicating with younger generations. To exhibit vulnerability within this relationship, the executive might share some embarrassing mistakes made when communicating with the mentor’s generation, while the mentor might openly share apprehensions or fears about giving feedback to an executive. In doing so, both parties break down barriers by being specific and partner-inclusive.
8. Be authentic
Authenticity goes hand-in-hand with trust. When an individual trusts their mentoring partner, they can be more open and genuine with them as a result. And by being more open and genuine, they build on that trust because they show their partner their true self. It’s a cyclical pattern that creates a positive connection between people and is something that mentoring administrators should push for.
Encourage your mentees and mentors to be themselves, including discussing hardships or failures toward meeting the mentoring relationship goals. When they present themselves with sincerity, they form a stronger bond and foundation for their mentoring relationship, and they also create a richer mentoring experience for themselves and their partners.
9. Listen with an open mind
While this ties in with receiving feedback, the idea of listening with an open mind goes a step further and applies to both parties in a mentoring relationship. Mentees and mentors who trust and respect one another will find it easier to listen to their partners without judging them. They will be able to hear what each other is saying without tuning them out.
This principle will also help them stay actively engaged in the conversation instead of only half listening while they formulate their response to what their partner is saying.
Of course, it’s hard to listen with an open mind if you’re not actually listening. Mentors and mentees that want to build a successful reverse mentoring relationship may want to brush up on their active listening skills before going into the engagement.
In your role as a mentoring program administrator, you can assist mentees and mentors with this skill by giving them tools and techniques that they can apply in their relationships to support and encourage open and active listening. You might also consider providing training on active listening techniques.
10. Set goals
Most mentoring relationships focus on the goals that the mentee wants to set and work toward accomplishing. Mentors will need to agree that the goals are ideal for the relationship, and that can be tricky for junior mentors in reverse mentoring. They may not feel suited or powerful enough to voice their opinion on what the executive mentee’s goals should be.
Some mentoring program administrators set up goals for the pairs in the form of an overarching program goal, such as having the executive learn about a new technology or how to use social media to interact better with the workforce.
Having a program goal as the basis for the relationship can help your mentees and mentors have a clear focus upon which they can set additional or interrelated goals.
It can also be helpful for you as the administrator to teach the pairs that both parties should have a voice in setting the goals. This explicit permission can help ease any apprehension the mentor may feel.
That leads to the question of how goals are set. We recommend having a specific format for goal setting that you apply across all reverse mentoring relationships. That framework makes it easier to track success. For example, you may want to use the REAL goals format.
Those are goals that are:
Ultimately, any format will work as long as the goal-setting format is easy to follow and it aligns to a goal-setting process that leads to goals that are measurable and aligned with your organization’s desired programmatic outcomes.
11. Hold confidence
The foundation of a mentoring relationship must be built on trust, and building this trust means setting boundaries with one another and keeping privileged information private. Confidentiality is critical to making the most of mentoring; without it, mentees and mentors won’t trust one another enough to be open, honest, vulnerable, etc.
Executive mentees need to be careful they don’t cross any lines with their mentors when it comes to what information is shared and expected to be held confidential. Care must be taken so that they do not put their mentors in an awkward position. The junior mentors will also need to be sure they take this confidentiality seriously and do not spread information to others outside of the mentoring relationship.
As the mentoring program administrator, you can help the mentoring pairs understand and commit to confidentiality by actively bringing it into the open and discussing it with all participants at the beginning of the program. Help mentees and mentors talk with one another to establish boundaries and expectations for confidentiality.
Above all, junior mentors will likely need training on how to be an effective mentor. Because of the nature of reverse mentoring, you’re relying on junior team members who may have less job experience and limited managerial experience, which often translates into better mentoring skills overall.
A Reverse Mentoring Program Goes a Long Way
MentorcliQ clients with Reverse Diverse Mentoring Programs see an average decrease in turnover of 44% in their mentoring populations vs. those not involved in mentoring.
Reverse mentoring programs work because that “script flipping” you’re doing gives employees what they need (visibility, responsibility, and growth). It also gives your executive leaders more insights that inspire creativity and innovation. It’s one of the best win-win strategies you can have to impact everyone at your organization across every level.
Ready to see what reverse mentoring looks like with software? Book a demo to learn more.
Among the biggest benefits of reverse mentoring is the open space to share knowledge. There are many senior leaders out there who could use a little mentoring and plenty of more junior employees out there who are willing to share what they know.
By helping your participants understand what is expected of them, what the goal of the program is, what the focus of the relationship will be, and some techniques to use to manage their relationships, your reverse mentoring program can be a positive experience for all involved.