|The workforce is rapidly becoming more diverse every single day. For the first time in history, the workforce consists of employees from five different generations, all with their own unique perspectives and life-shaping experiences.
Unfortunately, the speed of this diversification is not reflected in our business leadership. The direct impact of this disparity is a growing gap between business leaders and their people in regard to their perspectives. This gap causes problems that businesses would prefer to avoid – stagnant thinking, oversights, and blind spots that can lead to alienating policy and confused expectations.
Enter reverse mentorship. This management practice, also called reverse mentoring or “upward mentoring,” turns our traditional understanding of mentorship on its head. As the name implies, reverse mentorship consists of a senior employee seeking to gain business insights and workplace perspectives from a less experienced junior employee.
The goal is to take advantage of the fresh perspective a newer employee can offer. While consistency and planning are important, it’s very easy for an experienced leader to overlook a better method of doing something in favor of one that already does the job. Some of the cited benefits of reverse mentorship are more technical – for example, learning the buying habits of a millennial shopper – but where it really shines is in driving culture change and promoting diversity in our businesses.
If it sounds like reverse mentoring could be a benefit to your business, there are some important things to consider before diving in if you want to make the most out of it.
Be Deliberate: If an experienced leader enters a reverse mentoring relationship without the true intent to learn, it won’t be a success. You need to be genuinely curious about the perspectives of your mentor and very intentional with the relationship. Chemistry matters in an any mentoring relationship, so your match should be made thoughtfully.
This could be as simple as finding an intermediary who knows you and your team in order to make the match. This lets you eliminate your own subconscious biases and avoid picking someone simply because they think like you do. By seeking out differences instead of similarities, you can enhance the impact of the relationship.
Consider the Power Dynamic: One of the quickest ways to invalidate an upward mentoring relationship is by reversing the roles out of habit. While typical mentor relationships are completely valid – that shouldn’t be your intent in this situation. If you catch yourself slipping into mentor mode during your session, it’s important that you put yourself in check and focus on them. You should also encourage them to let you know when they notice the focus has shifted – but be wary of the power dynamic and recognize that it’s likely much easier for you to make that call than it is for them.
Another aspect of the power dynamic to be considered is that of credit. In a traditional mentoring relationship, the mentor isn’t expected to be given credit for a success of the mentee. However, in reverse mentoring, where outside the bounds of the relationship it’s the mentee who holds most of the power, it’s important to give credit where it is due.
Finally, don’t choose a mentor that reports directly to you. It’s a very difficult task to give your direct boss honest feedback when you know that your livelihood is in their hands. Instead, choose someone from a different department with a different boss – you’ll learn more!
Set Rules and Agendas: It’s important to have ground rules in a reverse mentoring relationship. Are there any topics that are off limit? Are you looking for generals or specific feedback on individuals?
As the mentee, you should be the one setting the agenda. Do you want to learn about how they got where they are? How your policies affect them day-to-day? By entering the relationship with a specific goal in mind that both parties understand, you can make the most of your sessions together.
It’s also important to reflect and put an emphasis on the key takeaways from your sessions. If you can verbalize exactly what it is you learned, it becomes much easier to act on it.
Studies show that when organizations employ reverse mentoring, it leads to a more inclusive workplace environment. Members of underrepresented groups feel much more empowered to share their perspectives. It builds the confidence and sense of leadership of junior employees and, when combined with your other diversity and inclusion strategies, leads to much higher retention. Plus, it shows that even a leader at the top of their game can benefit from a little collaboration.