The wisdom of youth: how businesses can benefit from reverse mentoring

Kate Bishop, chief human resources officer, IFS, explains how reverse mentoring can help build trust and camaraderie between senior and junior employees

Employees conversing in a modern office

While traditional mentoring is still widely embraced within many businesses, the concept of reverse mentoring is gaining ground. In the context of reverse mentoring, junior employees take on the role of mentors, guiding their more senior counterparts who become the mentees.

Reverse mentoring helps organisations tackle several critical challenges, such as the generation gap. In today’s diverse workforce, intergenerational collaboration is vital. By encouraging team members who are in the earlier stages of their career to share their insights and knowledge with more tenured colleagues, reverse mentoring helps improve communication and understanding between different age groups and different areas of responsibility across the workforce, bringing benefits to individuals and to the wider business.

How does reverse mentoring benefit the C-suite?

Top C-level executives can derive substantial benefits from participating in reverse mentoring. As technology rapidly evolves, younger employees, born in the digital era, offer valuable insights into the latest tech trends and innovations. But they can also provide new perspectives on areas of business senior team members may not even be aware of.

It can also be used to help with DEI initiatives. I recall from my own experience at a large enterprise, there was a perception from an individual from an employee resource group, who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community, that some senior leaders did not understand how difficult it was for some to be able to ‘bring their whole selves to work’ for a variety of reasons.

A reverse mentoring approach was ideally suited to this environment and matching members of the group with senior leadership to discuss their specific experiences and challenges in the workplace was an intuitive approach. The programme worked better than expected, with C-level executives gaining a new found appreciation for the challenges the individuals felt. Several of the executives vocally supported the employee resource group and provided budget for some events and training. It significantly changed, in a positive way, the way the group felt about how accepted they were within the organisation at all levels. In this context, reverse mentoring can change opinions and lead to positive change in multiple areas of an organisation. The C-suite can become champions of diversity, helping in turn to deliver employee engagement and acceptance, bolster morale and drive productivity across the business.

Sharing experiences, knowledge and digital skills is indispensable for organisations striving to remain competitive while looking to build a culture that supports diversity of thought. 

How does reverse mentoring benefit the workplace?

It is worth acknowledging that the benefits of reverse mentoring are two-way. It allows junior colleagues to mentor senior C-level individuals offering them a chance to stand in someone else’s shoes. After a period of reverse-mentoring, I have often heard senior members of staff saying that they simply did not realise how difficult life was for minority groups or those in certain exceptional circumstances.

As a result of reverse mentoring, therefore, leaders are more likely to empathise with the challenges of others, and their particular circumstances, such as those faced by single parents, who may struggle with after-work socials, for example. This new empathy leads to greater consideration in their actions and language.

Experience of communicating with senior leaders will also aid the development of junior employees in the future too. With the ice broken through the reverse mentoring process, both groups are likely to be much more proactive in engaging and actively cooperating in the future.

The reverse mentoring approach presents businesses with the opportunity to cultivate an inclusive environment where individuals feel appreciated and can freely exchange knowledge and different ways of working up, down and across the enterprise.

How to plan a reverse mentor programme

Implementing reverse mentoring across the business necessitates a well-defined strategy, starting with clear objectives and mentor/mentee outcome expectations. 

Subject selection is equally important. Mentorship discussions should focus on topics relevant and valuable to both parties, such as technology trends, workplace culture and emerging market insights.

Reverse mentoring can help to propel us toward a more connected and dynamic future

Matching mentors and mentees based on complementary skills is the third step, a principle which is applied in the same way as traditional mentoring. This may involve conducting skills assessments to identify strengths and areas requiring development. Organisations can then use the assessment results to pair mentors and mentees based on complementary skills and needs. That could also be by function – giving a senior R&D executive the opportunity to gather more experience of what it is like to work in a sales role, for example. 

Once this has been completed, businesses can look at establishing guidelines for meetings, confidentiality and feedback, which ensures a structured approach. Periodic check-ins to assess progress and provide support are also vital to success. To address any reservations among senior executives, emphasising the value of diverse perspectives, innovation and improved leadership is essential, while effective communication and demonstrating positive outcomes are always key to gaining support and ensuring the programme’s success.

Finally, it is critical that organisations prevent the senior employees – the mentees – from dominating the relationship and trying to mentor the junior members of staff. Empowering junior employees with skills to manage senior executives effectively is vital, as is reminding the senior employee that this is for their learning and ultimate benefit.

Businesses must also always guard against the danger that senior mentees just pay lip service to the arrangement. C-suite directors need to realise the value they will obtain from reverse mentoring, and that realisation could come from the way the approach is presented to them, or from talking to others in the organisation who have been reverse-mentored before. 

The future of reverse mentoring looks positive. Organisations increasingly recognise its value, and it’s poised to become standard practice across industries. In the evolving landscape, it is likely to expand to encompass a broader range of mentorship topics, including diversity and inclusion, sustainability and ethical business practices.

Reverse mentoring is a powerful tool that C-suite executives and organisations at large should embrace. It offers fresh insights, innovative solutions and also nurtures a culture of collaboration and inclusivity. As we adapt to the evolving modern workplace, reverse mentoring serves as a bridge across generational and other gaps, propelling us toward a more connected and dynamic future.