Reverse Mentorship: The Benefits and How to Get Started
Reverse mentorship is turning heads in the business world. It is a simple switch that can generate profound learnings: when a senior leader is mentored by a person from an under-represented background, the leader becomes the novice. Often uncharted territory for someone who has been in a leadership position for a long time, approaching the exercise with a growth mindset and open mind, is key to making it work.
Reverse mentorship has seen an uptick in recent years. 92% of the FTSE currently have some form of mentoring programme in place, and the top 10 mentoring platform providers globally, have seen a 100% increase in running these types of programmes since 2020, according to Patrice Gordon, Reverse Mentoring Expert, and author of ‘Reverse Mentoring: Breaking Barriers and Building belonging in the Workplace’.
Gordon points out that whilst there has been an increase in awareness of the benefits, information about how to run and implement reverse mentoring is still hard to come by and something many organisations are in search of.
Gordon’s journey of reverse mentoring kicked off when she had an ‘almost reciprocal mentoring relationship’ with Virgin Atlantic’s then VP of People Experience, Estelle Hollingsworth. This led to Patrice being asked to mentor Craig Kreeger, who was CEO of Virgin Atlantic at the time.
‘I was excited about having the ability to have one-on-one time with Craig, and not just to talk about work but really share my lived experience with him; not for my advancement, but to build a relationship based on a deeper understanding of someone like me, a leader who happens to be Black and a female.’
‘From this experience I realised how important it was for leaders to be in the right frame of mind, namely curious and ready to drive change, ahead of commencing a relationship such as this. Craig came into the situation, with a clear “modus operandi” and this was to become more aware of the biases that he held and really challenge himself and his leadership legacy.’
How can you implement reverse mentorship in the workplace?
Gordon suggests three initial steps:
- Be clear on the business challenge that you are trying to address with reverse mentoring, a wide approach will help in ensuring everyone is clear on the objectives and the role that they must play in the programme.
- Have a clear and transparent process for recruiting mentees but especially mentors – this is a unique opportunity to share an individual’s lived experience and influence both the individual and the business for the better.
- Invest the time to ensure the programme is clearly structured and guided.
Some people work better with guidelines, others prefer to free flow. This is a deeply personal experience and therefore it is essential that there are safeguards in place to ensure the psychological safety of both the mentors and the mentees.
Of course, implementing reverse mentorship is not without challenges. Particularly in organisations that have traditionally been more hierarchical, that are operating in traditional industries or that have more of a fixed mindset and do not champion a culture of continuous learning. Below, Patrice shares the most common challenges and blockers she has seen organisations struggling with when implementing this:
Lack of Leadership commitment: In order to have a successful reverse mentoring programme senior leadership buy-in and advocacy is essential.
Solution: A clear process for onboarding leaders, giving the time and space for them to ask questions and understand what will be required from them.
Unclear objectives: Programmes introduced without a specific set of objectives have a low rate of success, particularly if both the mentor and mentees are unclear about how to focus their conversations to get the desired outcome.
Solution: Ensure that the programme forms part of a DEIB strategy and that specific objectives are agreed for the programme beforehand. Using employee engagement surveys, or feedback from employee network groups to understand where some of the challenges currently lie and focusing the reverse mentoring relationship around this.
Lack of preparation: For both the mentor and mentee it is important to understand what is required from them as part of this relationship so that they can make the most of it.
Solution: Consider training sessions with mentors and mentees separately as a cohort, so that they can build a network and safe space for them to share their experiences throughout the programme.
A personalised workbook is also useful to help guide them through the journey. In addition, regular scheduled check-ins with participants are a helpful touchpoint to ensure the programme can course-correct if necessary.
What impact have you seen in organisations implementing reverse mentorship?
‘Estee Lauder is a great example’, says Gordon, and continues ‘Starting in 2015, Estee Lauder’s reverse mentoring program has now grown to over 350 leaders and 680 reverse mentors being involved globally. Integrating DEI into everyday practices and decision-making is what is attributed to the success of the program now going into its ninth year.’
Roberto Canevari, EVP Global Supply Chain, ELC, remarked:
‘A recognition of intersectionality absolutely influences our approach to engaging, supporting, and investing in our people across the global supply chain. People are not defined by simply one identity. They may face numerous, intersecting, and compounding barriers to success and opportunity. One thing is clear – the sponsorship and active commitment from the senior leadership team is paramount to the success of a reverse mentoring programme.’
It is clear that reverse mentorship is here to stay and will expand as a tool to address multiple challenges and opportunities in the modern workplace. In what ways can we expect reverse mentorship to make an impact? Gordon pinpoints five areas:
- Understanding the needs of different generations: At present, there are up to five generations in the workplace. The youngest generation, Gen Z presents and demands a lot more from their organisations than previous generations, Leaders need to be aware of how to lead a workforce for the future. In addition, with this mix of generations for the first time, it is important to be able to understand the complex nature of managing such a diverse workforce.
- Advancing Gender Equity: Reverse mentoring can narrow gender gaps by facilitating open dialogues, addressing biases, and promoting equitable representation in leadership roles.
- Promoting Ethnic and Cultural Representation: In multicultural settings, it serves as a mechanism for cultural exchange, steering clear of ethnocentrism and fostering an inclusive worldview.
- Navigating the Gig Economy: It offers insights into freelancing and gig work for those used to traditional employment structures, while gig workers can learn about institutional loyalty and career development.
- Incorporating AI and Technological Advancements: Young employees can provide guidelines on adopting new technologies ethically and operationally, while older employees can contextualise these changes in a broader business perspective.
‘The world is changing so quickly’, Gordon continues: For leaders to be effective they must be able to keep their fingers on the pulse whilst navigating larger strategic issues. Connecting with your people on a human level is going to be more beneficial in the long run as leaders seek to build a work environment where everyone can flourish and bring more of themselves to work.
Curious to learn more about reverse mentoring? Watch Patrice Gordon’s session at Headspring Learning Xchange here.