Preparing for a reverse mentoring programme

Preparing for a reverse mentoring programme

Two people in a meeting

27 March 2023

What are the issues to consider when setting up a reverse mentoring programme, enabling younger employees or managers to mentor senior executives? Christopher McLaverty, EMCC UK Director for Mentoring Practice, explores the preparation needed for a successful programme.

‘A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.’ Oprah Winfrey

‘Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’ EM Forster

A junior project manager for a major construction firm is hosting her chief executive and leading him around a one-hour site visit. In the civil service, a senior policy advisor is leading a meeting with the director general of another department. The director general listens intently, noting down the advice offered by the young man. What is going on in these meetings? How come the boss is diligently seeking advice from the subordinate?

How different is reverse mentoring from ordinary mentoring?

Reverse mentoring can be defined as ‘the pairing of more junior employees with executive team members, where the junior partner mentors the senior executive on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance’ (Jordan and Sorrell, Harvard Business Review, October 2019). Reverse mentoring has come a long way since the first documented occurrence in General Electric. In that instance, the CEO Jack Welch sought out young staffers to help him understand the impact of new technology.

Today, reverse mentoring can cover (but is not restricted to) new technology, use of social media and improving diversity and inclusion. The original assumption was that reverse mentoring would involve younger staff mentoring older executive mentees. But the growing trend for older people to return to the workforce, often after a career break or a spell of retirement, has major implications for reverse mentoring. The need for older recruits to learn new skills and refresh their capabilities will likely see an increase in the number of older mentees being mentored by younger managers. This will be reverse mentoring in a social and cultural sense, rather than an inversion of the organisational hierarchy.

In many ways, preparing for a successful reverse mentoring programme is like preparing for any good mentoring relationship. There needs to be as good a match between mentee and mentor as possible. A chemistry meeting where potential mentor and mentee can sound each other out is important. HR can provide support in terms of the supervision of mentoring relationships. They can help if some mentoring pairs run out of steam. Some conversations may focus too narrowly on an individual’s experience within a company or a single department, missing broader patterns that could take the relationship to the next level.

Like all good mentoring, reverse relationships should be based on sound contracting. How many sessions, for how long, in what medium? There is a need for the mentor and the mentee to define their development goals and share them with each other. This alignment may be the basis for the first conversation. The sponsors of the mentoring programme will need to consider how it will be evaluated and measured.

Once this generic groundwork for good mentoring is in place, what is the extra secret sauce for a successful reverse mentoring relationship?

Preparing the executive mentee

The senior executive will need to re-learn skills that may no longer be required in their current role. There are similarities to other leadership development experiences. One is where an executive chooses to work down a few levels in an organisation for a week or two. This could lead to a better understand of how a big change initiative is impacting upon operations. Or becoming a mystery shopper, to understand how a product or service is experienced by the consumer. The intent is to pierce the protective bubble that surrounds an executive and to introduce them to different perceptions and realities.

Active listening will be a vital skill and may need to be practised before the mentoring relationship starts. The senior executive is usually paid to know the answers and then tell subordinates what to do. Often their personal development involves learning how to tell stories within a given work culture. Now the imperative will be to listen to other’s stories and relay them back to the organisation.

Being an executive mentee requires asking open questions and being able to expand a topic rather than resort to problem solving. Curiosity is crucial. Some preparation may be required. If the purpose of the reversed mentoring is increased familiarity with social media, could the mentor set up an immersive experience for their mentee? The aim would be that the mentee can experience the power and spread of social media or explore the role of influencers, before starting the mentoring process.

I am currently supporting one programme, where white male executives are being reverse mentored by recent recruits who are people of colour. In this instance it is important to explore the concepts of privilege and allyship. An introduction to some of the structures perpetuating inequality in the UK is essential. Outside the workplace, what is the experience of people of colour in areas such as education, health, policing, and the jobs market?

Finally, help might be needed on language, labels and jargon. How does the mentee avoid gaffs and misunderstandings? If one occurs, what should be done? This is particularly sensitive when reverse mentoring focuses on diversity and inclusion. It can be helpful to explain in the initial training, any terms that are either outdated and/or offensive.

Preparing the junior mentor

The mentors also need to develop new skills. Inverting the hierarchy of the workplace requires self-confidence. The mentors will have to structure and direct a lengthy one to one meeting with a senior executive. They will need to become a source of knowledge and expertise and articulate what they know.

Coaching skills will be important. There is a truism that while some coaches never mentor, all great mentors at times need to coach. The GROW model (goal, reality, options, willingness to change) can serve as a simple and workable structure for helping the mentor to manage their conversations. Exposure to coaching tools can help the junior mentor grow and develop, early in their career. Other structures such as using news items, new apps, or social media material as a basis for discussion, will have the double benefit of exposing the executive mentee to new areas and prompting a discussion on the implications for the organisation.

The mentor may need practice to identify actions that the executive mentee can take back to the organisation for review or implementation. The mentor will need to review what has happened to any action plan and to discuss how the mentee could approach an issue differently, if there is prevarication or blockage

Common pitfalls

In the programmes I have led, one of the most likely pitfalls involves the mentee and mentor drifting back to their ‘normal’ place in the organisation hierarchy. For the executive mentee this means trying to solve problems and removing ambiguity. They may want to jump very quickly to identifying a narrow solution to a broad and complex issue. The challenge for the mentor is to avoid resuming the subordinate role and complying with this desire. As a mentor they should be trying to get the mentee to think as broadly as possible.

Another challenge I have encountered is that the mentoring relationship quickly becomes too narrow and too polite. Both mentor and mentee may have a high level of anxiety arising from the inversion of the workplace hierarchy. Introducing some structures and resources might help. For example, in a programme focused on race and diversity, both mentor and mentee can bring in topical news articles and discuss them from different perspectives. This may help to broaden the mentoring discussion.

The executive mentee may want to offer career advice or sponsorship. Once again, the mentor needs to remain in role. The appropriate time for career planning or advice is after the mentoring contract has finished. It is very beneficial for junior staff to build their networks and seek career advice from seniors. However, doing so at the wrong time will corrupt or derail the reverse mentoring process.

Finally, the organisation needs to consider how to support both mentors and mentees. Is there a neutral third party or sounding board for mentors and mentees to go to if the relationship becomes stuck? Is there a digital safe space for mentors and a separate one for mentees, where ideas and successful tools and techniques can be shared?

After the programme

The programme sponsors and participants need to agree a process and a time for evaluating the mentoring programme. To what degree have the objectives of the mentors and executive mentees been met? Have any clear actions arisen from reverse mentoring and what should be done to implement them? What has worked and could be repeated in subsequent mentoring? What hasn’t worked and needs to be changed? This is also time to explore whether the relationships built up through mentoring can have an afterlife. Hopefully, networks can be extended, and relationships can be continued beyond the formal programme.

Further resources

Join – If you have a passion for mentoring, the Mentoring Special Interest Group could be for you! You can share best practice and expand your network. This is an excellent forum to build your knowledge and benefit from the experience of other Mentors

Read – a book and a blog:

Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to do it Right. Jordan J and Sorell M, Harvard Business Review, October 2019

Reverse mentoring: seeing things differently from the Civil Service blog

Watch – examples of reverse mentoring in action:

A reverse mentor from Virgin Atlantic shares their experience

The CEO of Balfour Beatty becomes an executive mentee

Image by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash