Having a mentor to support and guide you at work can make a huge difference when it comes to your career. Not only do they offer knowledge and advice during difficult situations and transitions, they also provide motivation to help you get ahead.
When we think of a mentor, we tend to think of someone who has worked their way up to the top of the ladder in their profession — someone with decades of experience. But another form is becoming increasingly popular among businesses — reverse mentoring.
In reverse mentoring, a junior team member enters into a professional relationship with someone more senior, so they can exchange skills, knowledge and understanding.
What is reverse mentoring?
“Reverse mentoring is where junior staff members are paired with more senior employees to exchange ideas, best practices and insight. These programmes are mutually beneficial to both senior and junior employees,” says Sheri Hughes, director of diversity & inclusion at the recruitment agency Michael Page.
Mentoring can be described as a personal, collaborative relationship between individuals, where the mentor is committed to helping the mentee reach specific career or life goals.
“In the case of reverse mentoring, the goals could be things such as: immersing in specific skills, gaining technical savviness, obtaining a fresh perspective on a marketplace or situation,” says Charlie Chung, vice president of business development & solutions consulting at the online learning platform NovoEd. “An additional goal could also be to develop closer connections with more junior people within the organisation.”
It’s also a useful way for an experienced executive to gain a skill that is new and popular with early-career employees.
“Having a strategic discussion or problem solving with someone more junior helps senior people get back in touch with the ideas and enthusiasm that shaped their early career,” explains Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at the workplace analytics company Visier.
“It’s also helpful in breaking through the echo chamber of politics and ego that can sometimes form around senior executives.”
Reverse mentoring also helps to create a flatter organisation, overturning the traditional organisational hierarchy and power structure.
How to make reverse mentoring work for businesses?
Senior members of staff may be reluctant to seek support and advice from younger colleagues. Therefore, it’s important for employees to remain open-minded and to foster a workplace culture that challenges traditional hierarchies.
“Success might not instantly happen,” Hughes says. “Both sides may also need to tailor their communication styles or business practices. However, if both parties are willing to be patient and can keep a clear understanding of the outcome they want to achieve, then both stand the best chance of success.”
It’s also important to identify suitable partners. “It is key to initially identify talented junior employees who have long term aspirations within their new company, as well as an eagerness to learn,” Hughes explains.
“These individuals should be paired with a suitable senior member of staff who they have a good chemistry with — possibly someone who previously interviewed them — in order to create a positive understanding within the pair.”
Finally, companies should make sure everyone has clear expectations of the mentoring relationship.
“The pair should hold an informal meeting early on in the relationship to establish what each side is seeking to gain from the partnership,” Hughes says. “This will help both parties to understand their unique role and how they can help themselves, and their partner, to achieve success.”