The world of business has never changed so rapidly as it has during the Internet Age. For this reason, some companies are realizing that the strategies and skills that made their C-Suite executives successful up to this point may not be what they need to succeed in the coming decades. For this reason, companies are learning to mine expertise from an initially surprising source.
What is Reverse Mentoring?
Standard mentoring relationships posit that people with greater experience can help people who are earlier in their careers succeed through the sharing of experiences and perspectives. Reverse mentoring recognizes that, in a world full of recently emerging digital technologies, the younger, less-experienced individuals at a company may have insights that would actually benefit experienced executives in their decision-making for the company.
Reverse mentoring doesn't necessarily place entry-level workers in positions of power, but it does mean soliciting their honest feedback on how processes could be accomplished differently at the company. For it to be successful, the entry-level or mid-level employees have to feel empowered to offer honest feedback and even some critique without fear of retribution.
Millennial's as Reverse Mentors
Millennial's, or those born in the 80s and early 90s, are now coming into their own in the workforce, but have the benefit of having interacted with computers, and in some cases smart phones, for nearly their entire lives. This means their acculturation to digital technology and the Internet was different from that of individuals who learned about computing as adults; this phenomenon is described as being "digital natives." Millennial's are in a position to offer novel approaches to leaders who are open to understanding what younger generations are wanting from their interactions with businesses.
Benefits of Reverse Mentorship for Leaders
Understanding Racial and Gender Diversity
One major reason why reverse mentorship is valuable is that the current young generations include a range of gender and ethnic diversity that hasn't been seen in past generations; as we move up the corporate ladder, there tend to be fewer people of color and women. Getting to know your entry-level and mid-level employees can help you learn what makes the environment of the company and the opportunities for advancement appealing across gender and race lines, and what makes people feel comfortable doing the kind of cutting-edge work that gets them noticed for leadership.
Understanding Youth Usability for Digitally-Driven Products and Services
Practically every company either uses digital technology for internal processes, marketing, or the heart of their product or service. Younger employees can offer insight into whether their peers might see certain digital implementations as clunky and hard to use or seamless and engaging. While no one Millennial can speak for all the others, it is best to have age diversity in a room when it comes to broad usability choices.
Understanding Emerging Social Responsibility Values
More so than in past generations, Millennial's as a group seem to value companies that put their social responsibility values front and center and mention them in their outward-facing communication. Millennial's in your company's communication-related departments could be excellent potential reverse mentors on the topic of framing the company's products and services as socially responsible.
Creating New Language for C-Suite Communication
In general, C-suite executives want their messages to engage and attract others. Your reverse mentoring relationships, over time, will diversify the ways of speaking and writing that C-suite executives have at their disposal. More diverse connections, including connections to those outside of one's age range or experience level, may help solve problems of communicating the desires for the vision of the company.
Empowering New Hires to Speak Up
Creating a reverse mentoring program is obviously tricky because entry-level employees may be more interested in pleasing their managers and C-suite executives than they are in critiquing current practices. However, the more authentic the reverse mentoring program, and the more clarity that employees receive about their freedom to speak up, the better the program will work. Companies need each individual to be more interested in solving problems, rather than feeling fearful of retribution over respectfully-delivered feedback.
Combining Comprehensive Leadership Training with Reverse Mentorship
One of the ways to incorporate reverse mentoring effectively is to incorporate it into a well-structured leadership development training program. While both entry-level and upper-level employees may feel uncomfortable about reverse mentoring without any preamble, they can both get on board when they realize the benefits to the company of mentoring in both directions. Reverse mentoring, after all, is just a mirror image of regular mentoring, and with both at play, each individual feels they are both offering their own insights and receiving helpful wisdom.
A leadership training program also puts even the most experienced leaders in a place where they are considering how they themselves can improve and grow. This mentality is known as "novice mindset," and most executives and other upper-level professionals spend more time in their roles as experts, so it can be very helpful to have leadership development options so that they can return to the space of being a learner. When they are already in this head space, having them talk to entry-level or other less experienced team members will be more useful, since they will be in a mentality of learning and growing rather than just a mentality of sharing their expertise. Using both expert and novice mindset at the appropriate times helps leaders to be their most effective versions of themselves.
Reverse mentorship can also be a way to extend the long-term effects of a leadership development training. By creating connections at a leadership seminar or training, you can also encourage these same mentors and mentees to meet together in the future to discuss potential collaborations or to receive valuable feedback. In these moments, they will be reminded of the lessons they learned together in training, and may be more likely to persist in putting those lessons into practice.
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