Reverse Mentoring: Turning Tables on Tradition

By Robert Half on April 7, 2015 at 6:21pm

Mentoring has long been recognized as an effective workplace practice and positive experience. It's a way for veteran finance professionals to pass on industry and organizational knowledge to less-tenured colleagues.

Now, more companies are turning the formula around with reverse mentoring, and finding it’s just as constructive to have expertise and insights flowing up the hierarchical ladder.

Reverse mentoring arrangements pair more experienced professionals — typically, executives and managers — with employees of younger generational groups for example, millennials, who tend to be on the leading edge of technology-related trends. From these employees, managers gain insight on everything from the ins and outs of social media to Gen Y professionals' perspectives on career and work.

An upward view

Managers benefit from reverse mentoring by forging closer relationships with their employees. And Millennial workers can help them see business challenges and opportunities from the point of view of a generation that has a growing presence in the workforce.

For instance, financial executives can gain greater insights into issues such as what it will take to retain professionals in the early years of their careers or why a more flexible approach to work is needed.

In return, nontraditional mentors also realize numerous benefits. Besides the satisfaction of gaining a stronger sense of purpose, the arrangement gives them unique access to influential people in their company who they might not otherwise have an opportunity to meet. It’s also a way for up-and-coming professionals to share their perspectives on a range of issues with business leadership.

As in more traditional mentoring relationships, the interaction between the two parties also strengthens trust and understanding on both sides. This can boost morale, and, ultimately, retention.

Getting the ball rolling

If you think your organization could benefit from reverse mentoring, here are some suggestions for getting the practice off the ground:

  • Speak up. Mentoring programs can be easy to implement. All that’s required are two willing participants. As a leader, consider proposing reverse mentoring as a way of bridging the knowledge gap between veteran and newer employees.

    Consider the business case for your firm. Would the practice help infuse new perspectives into strategic decisions? Allow company leaders to enhance their professional reputations via social networking? Strengthen recruiting and retention efforts?

  • Avoid stereotyping. In any initiative involving generational traits, there is always the danger of making incorrect assumptions about the interests and abilities of employees from either end of the spectrum. Not every 20-something is an app aficionado, and not every senior accounting manager is flummoxed when it comes to social media.

    Foster individual relationships with staff to get an accurate picture of the attributes of each before attempting to set up a reverse mentoring arrangement.

  • Volunteer yourself. Some office veterans may be cynical about the idea of tapping into the knowledge of colleagues 20 to 30 years their junior. Set an example by being one of the first to try the arrangement. Consider how you could most benefit by having a Gen Y mentor.

  • Reach out. Once you’ve determined what you would like to get out of the relationship, look for prospective volunteers. Perhaps some of your managerial-level peers will want to join in the process.

  • Don’t be too formal. The mentoring relationship shouldn’t seem rigid. Remember, you’re trying to put your mentor at ease with the arrangement. Avoid setting rules about when or how often parties will meet and steer clear of formal agendas. Keep the meetings casual and free-flowing. Just asking off-the-cuff questions can lead to highly productive exchanges.

Finally, although mentors may have the goal of enhancing their skills or knowledge in a particular area, they should be encouraged to allow the relationship to evolve. It may start with one goal or learning objective, but could very well develop into a mutually beneficial, long-term professional connection.

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