Harness the wisdom of junior colleagues
While mentoring involves giving advice to a younger or less experienced colleague, reverse mentoring sees the junior employee take the lead. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? What help or advice can they really give to the senior leaders of an organization?
A lot, it turns out. Jack Welch pioneered the practice at US conglomerate General Electric more than 20 years ago, to ensure senior employees become internet savvy.
And, since then, business leaders and academics have watched with interest as more companies adopt the practice. Professional services firms PwC and Linklaters and consumer group Estée Lauder all have well-documented reverse mentoring programs in place.
Reverse mentors should also benefit from increased confidence, strong connections to senior leaders, and generally a different perspective on the company they work at. It can also be a powerful boost to their visibility.
Why do companies do it? Fortunately, three academics in the United States published a review of the literature on reverse mentoring last year. They found that companies primarily – but not always – used it to help develop and improve diversity and inclusion. Other goals include leadership development and dissemination of technical expertise.
But, in addition to technical savvy, early-career colleagues can offer very different perspectives than senior managers, who tend to suffer from confirmation bias. Exposed only to the opinions of like-minded people, these executives become convinced that they know – and are right – just about everything.
Credit management company Lowell (full disclosure: I’m a non-executive director of the UK board) launched a reverse mentoring program last year. Designed to improve diversity and inclusion, the initiative paired all individual executive committee members with early-career employees, so executives could get a sense of what life at work was like for a range of people.
Mentors in the program came from underrepresented groups – for example, women, people of different ethnic backgrounds, single parents and people who were not born in the UK.
Nick Ollard, director of UK clients at Lowell, was mentored by Anete Klavina, who was born in Latvia and moved to the UK 11 years ago. The many lessons he learned, he says, included “understanding how people of a different generation might view certain situations” – and he found that “really helped. . . to put into perspective the decisions you might make.
What was Klavina’s take on the experience? “Despite all the preparation, it was scary to walk into the first meeting, especially with a man in such a powerful position,” she recalls, reflecting the understandable apprehension reversed mentors can feel.
In the end, though, it was “a huge confidence booster,” she explains. “The process felt like we were on a journey together exploring our own biases and breaking down some of the stereotypes that had [been] shaped in my mind, me coming from a foreign land.
Even regular mentoring programs can now have “reversed elements”. I myself am a mentor of the Help to Grow Scheme, a UK government-backed program for small businesses that Heriot Watt University, where I am Executive Dean of the Edinburgh Business School, is helping to set up.
As a mentor, I spend 10 hours with each of my mentees over several weeks, and it’s not a one-way street. One mentee is in retail, another in wealth management, and both provide me with helpful suggestions, such as how they go about hiring people in a tight job market.
Another example of this is MoneySuperMarket’s mentorship program, which matches underrepresented workers with senior group executives. Hannah-Rose Williams, a learning and development specialist at the price comparison website, says the program has delivered reverse mentoring benefits even though it was not explicitly designed to do so.
“The most common ways mentors have experienced reverse mentoring . . . has been through insight into the barriers faced by less experienced and underrepresented colleagues,” Williams says, citing challenges such as the lack of visibility in the organization and lack of trust As a result, mentors say they want to do more to address these issues in their own areas of work.
I am leaving Edinburgh for Dubai in September, to be the provost of our campus there. Moving to a whole new part of the world means that I now plan to seek a reverse mentor, ideally an Emirati “female at the start” who works outside of higher education.
How Companies Can Make Reverse Mentoring Successful
Alison Leslie, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Lowell Group, designed and managed her reverse mentoring program. She offers the following advice for businesses:
Invest time in building your group of mentors and let them meet during their training so they can voice their concerns.
Preparation is essential and mentees also need training. Make sure everyone understands that conversations can initially be awkward or even uncomfortable.
Keep the details of who sponsors who private. Do you really want everyone to know who the GM’s reverse mentor is?
Establish clear guidelines. The Lowell program involved a “virtual coffee” over a video call, followed by a face-to-face meeting. Then it was up to the mentor/mentee to agree if they wanted to continue, and the program had a closing date. Confidentiality was assured at all times.
Getting the right match is essential. Jennifer Jordon and Michael Sorrell, two academics at the IMD business school who have conducted research on reverse mentoring, also make this point: check with mentees before finalizing a match.
The writer is Executive Dean of Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, and author of ‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’.