While many leaders are familiar with mentoring programs and their benefits, they tend to focus on conventional mentorships where senior employees mentor up-and-coming younger employees, especially potential future leaders. Reverse mentoring programs flip that, inviting younger employees to share their knowledge and experience with more-senior colleagues and leaders.

The first reverse mentorship programs date from the 1990s and were focused on younger employees sharing technology skills with older employees. Now, though, the concept is far broader and more diverse, with young mentors sharing a variety of knowledge and experience—anything from social media savvy to helping older workers and leaders understand the culture and become familiar with the social issues and values important to younger colleagues.

Benefits of reverse mentoring programs

Reverse mentoring programs can bring a host of benefits, from increasing understanding among employees who may have little in common to offering younger—and often more diverse—employees access to seasoned leaders to sparking innovation by improving leaders’ awareness of trends, values, and attitudes they may not encounter in their peer groups.

Writing for BBC, Nicole Kobie said, “Practically, this can mean corporate executives—who still tend to be white and male—can learn from a wider variety of people across their workforce. That could be talking to younger generations simply to understand what they value, or it could be seeking out minority groups from that wider workforce to figure out what practical changes need to happen.”

Improve knowledge sharing & knowledge transfer

Fostering and supporting relationships among employees at different stages in their careers can increase knowledge transfer and deepen institutional knowledge. A mentor relationship can encourage sharing that goes beyond functional knowledge and skills related to a specific job role. “It can include important cultural memories, such as stories of how the organization was founded, or more tactical knowledge, such as how to work with an important client or manage a critical project, according to Mentoring Complete. As Baby Boomers retire, the “handing down” of implicit, deeply personal knowledge and experience becomes ever-more important to head off a “brain drain.”

When the mentor is a younger, newer employee, the knowledge transfer might pertain to new skills needed as job roles change, with the older employee providing context and history, and the younger mentor sharing new technologies or automated processes to get the job done more efficiently.

Develop a diverse leadership pipeline

Women and minorities who mentor leaders get valuable “face time” with those leaders, gain a different perspective on the organization, and build their own communication and leadership skills—as well as sharing their expertise with their mentees.

These reverse mentorships also break down barriers between employees across generations—and across gender, cultural, and social divides. By cultivating personal relationships with younger employees, senior managers get to know them and appreciate their abilities and experience, making it more likely that they champion those employees’ move up the company ladder: A Harvard Business Review study found that, on average, mentoring programs “boost the representation of Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women, and Hispanic and Asian-American men, by 9% to 24%.”

Strengthen recruiting and retention

Employees of all ages want to be seen and heard, and feel that they have a forward and upward path in their careers. Reverse mentoring schemes can make younger staff feel listened to and welcome in offices, helping reduce employment churn, the BBC article said. Simply having mentoring and reverse mentoring programs sends a message to employees that the organization cares about their development.

And, according to HBR’s “Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do It Right,” a BNY-Mellon-Pershing reverse mentoring program, started in response to high turnover among Millennial employees, had a 96% retention rate in its first cohort.

Bring new perspectives to decision-makers

A reverse mentoring program can add new and un- or under-represented viewpoints to senior leaders that can change the way leaders make decisions, help overcome biases, and raise awareness of types of resources that employees may need. Conversations about “complex issues, like diversity or inclusion, will create a stronger workplace culture,” according to Ryan Carruthers, in the Together blog.

Reverse mentoring programs cited in the BBC article addressed topics ranging from teaching leaders about LGBT+ issues to teaching senior staff how younger people shop and interact online, encouraging greater inclusivity of people with disabilities in workplace videos, and even helping senior leaders understand what types of flexibility and support younger workers want in the pandemic era, helping companies retain workers.

How to get started

While a key goal of reverse mentorships is exposing leaders to diverse perspectives, the matches should be balanced, and the mentor and mentee should get along well and agree on basic “ground rules” around what their agenda and goals are, what topics are off limits, confidentiality, and how often and where they will meet—which can be outside the office in informal spaces like coffee shops.

The Center for Creative Leadership emphasizes that mentors and mentees should be intentional about their goals, agree on the purpose of the mentorship—and understand when that purpose has been accomplished and the arrangement can come to an end. The mentor should not be a direct report of the senior mentee. And obviously, both need to approach the mentorship with open minds and a willingness to learn from the other.

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