Teaching the "old dogs" new tricks: reverse mentoring

So, you are racking your brain over how to keep your managers up-to-date. Technological change and diversity in the workplace are rising at an ever-increasing rate. Your managers and hence your training programs need to keep pace with this dynamic environment. One solution to this dilemma is reverse mentoring.

Many organizations have embraced the benefits of traditional mentoring; matching young, malleable employees with seasoned veterans. But what of the knowledge that younger, more junior employees can impart to managers? Reverse mentoring programs provide a forum for managers to learn from junior employees who can provide different insights, perspectives and knowledge across a variety of areas.

What do junior employees have to offer? Junior employees today have grown up with technology and a greater understanding of diversity. They are not the sheltered “juniors” of the past. They have accumulated broad experiences, living in Internet time, and are willing to share these insights. The diverse knowledge base that junior employees can offer is an advantage which can be capitalized on through a reverse mentoring program.

Reverse mentoring exists in many forms and levels. It is very likely that reverse mentoring is already occurring within your organization. Managers are calling their younger employees into their offices for assistance with software programs, Internet research or even on how to deal with other junior employees. This type of informal reverse mentoring is driven by the mentoree and is based on the relationship that exists between the junior employee and the manager.

More formal programs, however, can be developed with structured, concrete expectations agreed to by the mentor and mentoree, accompanied by a formal, organization-wide matching process. This allows for junior employees to connect with different managers, and allows the managers access to different perspectives and insights. The extension to a more formal program may expand the benefits that result from reverse mentoring.

The benefits of reverse mentoring can be widespread. Not only do managers receive the training they require in a targeted, just-in-time manner, junior employees also benefit. Organizations should not underestimate the power of asking junior employees for assistance or an opinion. Junior employees thrive on this type of acknowledgement. Being asked to provide suggestions often leads to a greater respect for the individual doing the asking. With this respect, comes a degree of loyalty, which we all know is hard to find in today’s organization. So, why wouldn’t everyone introduce reverse mentoring?

As you can well imagine there are limitations to reverse mentoring. It is based on a premise that every employee has credible advice or assistance to provide. A culture of learning, which recognizes and embraces the knowledge of all workers is required for reverse mentoring to be successful. Management must believe that the younger generation has value to add, and be willing to accept their insights and knowledge.

In addition, managers must be self-aware to the point of recognizing which areas they require assistance and then seek help. A reverse mentoring program requires voluntary participation to be successful. The reverse mentor should not be placed in a situation where resentment or hostility may result. This would certainly harm the relationship of the reverse mentor with that manager, and potentially their career.

Even with these limitations in mind, you may still want to consider a reverse mentoring program. A word of caution however, if your organization is not accustomed to the involvement of junior employees, it may be prudent to focus your reverse mentoring program around technical development initially, which is likely to be more acceptable to managers. Alternatively, a reverse mentoring program can target a specific area where knowledge of the younger generation would be highly beneficial, such as youth-oriented direct marketing. A reverse mentoring program, in this instance, can provide managers with vital actionable, information that can provide a competitive advantage.

Understanding your organization’s appetite and cultural acceptance for this form of training and development is crucial. As with any training program, there will be sceptics, but a well-implemented program can provide numerous benefits to your organization and potentially provide you with the dynamic training solution you are seeking. Though reverse mentoring may not solve all developmental needs of your managers, it is a viable option to help ensure their continued success.

Marnie Smith is an associate consultant with Sibson & Company. She can be reached at 416-542-2415, or by e-mail at, [email protected]

Latest stories