Reverse mentoring is not a new term, but it is one that’s gaining traction in the business world. As inequalities — whether racially-, gender- or age-based — raise the agenda, boards are looking to tackle corporate inequity. Reverse mentoring is just one of the tactics you can use to improve the diversity of thought across your board and organization.

 

What Is Reverse Mentoring?

The accepted reverse mentoring definition is a process where a junior member of the organization is partnered with a more senior, experienced member to learn from each other. Specifically, it’s designed to help the more senior person understand the younger’s lived experience of working in the business.

The concept of reverse mentoring was popularized by Jack Welch, who introduced it into General Electric in 1999.

In conversation with Brené Brown on the Dare to Lead podcast, Patrice Gordon describes reverse mentoring as “When the novice teaches the master,” and as “A leader leaning into their vulnerability and welcoming a relationship with an under-represented employee.”

The point about under-representation is significant. One of the benefits of a reverse mentoring program, as highlighted by Gordon, is that people who might be traditionally overlooked in the business are “given a voice to influence those making the decisions.”
Around the corporate decision-making table, everyone can tend to look very similar. It may be a cliché, but there is a definite tradition of male, white, middle-aged board members and senior directors. Today’s organizations realize that they need to draw from a wider talent pool if they are to benefit from the positives of diversity of thought.

Reverse mentoring doesn’t solve this, of course — but it can be an important element of a broader ESG strategy that helps to build a more diverse business.

 

What Is the Aim of Reverse Mentoring?

The business case for greater workplace diversity is “overwhelming.”

Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics.

World Economic Forum

Reaping these rewards, though, demands that your approach, too, goes “beyond the optics.” In other words, paying lip service to diversity of thought or workforce will not cut it.

Putting this into practice may mean taking steps to dismantle the “lavender ceiling” facing many LGBTQ+ employees, ensuring representation at board level, or running training on race and gender bias for board nomination and governance committees. It means putting your money where your mouth is — taking meaningful action to deliver on diversity and inclusion goals.

That’s one reason reverse mentoring can be so powerful. It is highly meaningful, genuinely placing those without a voice in the corporate hierarchy in front of those making key decisions — and as a result, providing a new perspective on the workplace experience and broader world.

As part of a broader push to bring diverse views to the policy-making table, reverse mentoring can be invaluable, helping your executives avoid groupthink and giving them fresh thinking to inform your ESG policies.

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A Catalyst for Diversity: The Future of Representation

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Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

There are numerous benefits for implementing this program, here are a few of them:

1) Easier to Hire and Retain Employees

Many employers struggle with “how to retain millennial talent — and also with how to stay relevant to younger consumers.”

The worldview of Millennials (who by 2025 will make up 75% of the world’s workforce) and their expectations of employment can be worlds away from the experience of the average board member. Reverse mentoring can help here.

While Welch may have instigated reverse mentoring to help older employees understand technology, today’s programs go far beyond this, exploring “how senior executives think about strategic issues, leadership, and the mindset with which they approach their work”  — and conversely, how this is viewed by their employees.

Tap into this, and you have powerful insight into how you can build an organization that attracts the next generation of employees you need.

 

2) Access to Innovative Thinking

Innovation is a natural result of diverse thinking. In the same way that immigration has been shown to drive innovation, creating a melting pot of cultures, genders, ages and other criteria within the workplace encourages a breadth of ideas that drives new products and solutions.

 

3) Better Business Performance

While no one is suggesting that if you put in place reverse mentoring, your business results will instantly improve, there is a direct correlation between organizations that prioritize DEI and ESG and financial performance. Those with more diverse management teams have been shown to have 19% higher revenues due to innovation; those with more women on their boards outperform on profits.

This innovation, the ability to attract talent and the employee loyalty that result from organizations’ ESG policies create more successful companies. As one of the building blocks of a more diverse business, reverse mentoring has sound commercial rationale alongside its ethical imperatives.

 

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Diversity Playbook: A Roadmap to Driving Board Diversity

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Best Practices for Reverse Mentoring

How to get it right? That’s the million-dollar question once you’ve decided to implement a reverse mentoring strategy. A few key pointers can help ensure your reverse mentorship program is a success.

  • Trust is vital. Reverse mentoring lives or dies on honesty; both mentor and mentee have to open up for it to work, and “In order for people to lean in with vulnerability, they have to have trust.” Gordon refers to this as providing “psychological safety” within the reverse mentoring program. Whether mentor or mentee, there needs to be a sense that they can share in confidence on both sides. There must be knowledge that any insights shared cannot be used against them in any way.
  • Honesty is the cornerstone. The younger or less experienced partner needs to be candid about their experiences — good and bad — of work. The more senior one has to be frank about the organization’s performance on DEI and ESG — what they have tried in the past, what has worked and what hasn’t.

If the trust is there, this honesty should flow as a natural consequence.

  • Pay close attention to “matches.” Matching mentors and mentees is an art — you need to put a lot of thought into marrying up two people who will gel and mutually benefit from the experience. Having an independent and trusted point of contact to facilitate these matches is essential.

Particularly for the more junior employee, knowing that they will be matched with someone appropriate gives them confidence in the process. Having an independent contact who can act as their advocate throughout the program is also vital.

  • Ensure your reverse mentoring program is a priority. There is likely enthusiasm and commitment from the mentor — this is a rare opportunity for the unheard to have a voice. On the other hand, the mentee is likely to have many other pressing priorities, and there is always a risk that the initiative will slip down their list.

You cannot allow this to happen if your employees are to have faith in reverse mentoring. Think about the training and support that might be needed to enable your business leaders to commit long term.

  • Focus the conversation on who you are rather than what you do. Pigeonholing the mentor and mentee into their work personas hampers open dialogue. You know the work dynamics already; one of you has more power than the other. Capitalize on your time together to delve deeper; what does the experience of work look like for the mentor? How have their life experiences made them who they are?
  • Commit to seeing the program through. Full commitment from the business to any reverse mentoring program implemented is imperative. Nothing sheds trust and motivation faster than unfulfilled promises.

The organization needs to commit, not just to operating the program in a meaningful way but to delivering outcomes from it. Gordon calls this the “now what, so what?” of reverse mentoring. It’s well documented that asking employee opinions and failing to give feedback or act on them is a common cause of failed employee engagement initiatives. Before you start, decide what your business will do with the outcomes of reverse mentoring.

  • Go beyond reverse mentoring. Maybe the most important “best practice” when it comes to reverse mentoring is to remember that it is only one element of your ESG policy.

Reverse mentoring cannot be the be-all and end-all of your efforts to build a more equitable board. And in turn, any board-level initiatives to improve DEI will not succeed if they are not embedded within a genuinely inclusive corporate culture. In the words of the World Economic Forum, “Diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-time campaign or a one-off initiative.”

 

Challenges and Risks of Reverse Mentoring

Reverse mentoring has the potential to deliver many benefits. But as with any business strategy, it also comes with challenges and risks. In some cases, why does reverse mentoring fail? There are several challenges and risks you may encounter:

Bringing a more experienced, senior employee together with a more junior one creates an unbalanced relationship. As Gordan explains, the inexperienced employee may struggle to communicate without bringing emotion into the discussion, especially in areas where they feel strongly.

In this situation, the more experienced person needs to absorb the intent of the communication minus the emotion — but even for the most senior executive, this can be a challenge. Tailored training may help here.

The unequal relationship at the heart of reverse mentoring programs also creates challenges around trust and fear. We have highlighted the importance of trust in reverse mentoring; if this is lacking, or there is a broader culture of mistrust and fear in the organization, your reverse mentoring model will never work. A more fundamental rethink of corporate culture is needed before you start.

We noted how crucial the right match is to the success of your reverse mentoring program. Getting it wrong is one of the core stumbling blocks. Consider who might work well together, thinking about not just age, gender or race but also personality types — will a combination of introvert and extravert work better than two similar characters?

Not following up on the issues flagged via reverse mentoring is another risk. Fail to act on reverse mentoring topics raised, and you will lose the goodwill and confidence of your workforce.

 

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Dimensions of Diversity: LGBTQ+ Representation in Leadership

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View Reverse Mentoring as Part of a Bigger Picture

Of course, as helpful as it can be to implement reverse mentoring, diversity and inclusion will not immediately follow if this is your only tactic. It can fill gaps and expand the board’s mindset, but it isn’t a silver bullet for a more equitable organization.

You need people at the boardroom table permanently, not just temporarily. This means reverse mentoring should be implemented alongside an approach to board recruitment that actively seeks out more diverse board members, policies that provide a level playing field for LGBTQ+ employees and wider corporate diversity and inclusion strategies.

But although reverse mentoring may only be one tool in your toolbox, it can be a powerful one. If you plan to explore it, we hope the tips here have helped you plan and establish your reverse mentoring program.

If you would like to take a holistic approach to improve diversity and inclusion within your board and organization as a whole, expanding your network beyond your usual contacts can help. Recruiting “in your own image” means that boards retain their traditional make-up, whereas fishing outside this limited pool can have positive effects on your diversity of thought.

Diligent’s Director Network — a network of nearly 700,000 CEOs, board directors and executives — provides a forum for leaders wanting to impact diversity, equity and inclusion. Joining the Director Network makes you part of the largest and most diverse pool of highly qualified directors and executives globally, helping members build proactive DEI strategies.

 

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