Your parents taught you to walk and talk and now, in return, you fix their WiFi. Sharing skills across generations is typical in most families. But what about in the workplace?
We’re all used to the idea of a senior role model imparting essential insight and wisdom to younger colleagues. However, we mustn’t overlook the fact that Generations Y and Z have plenty they can teach Generation X and above. Reverse mentoring is an increasingly popular skills-sharing approach taken by forward-thinking organisations. Here’s a rundown of what it is and how it’s been put into practice around the world.
What is reverse mentoring?
Reverse mentoring is a scheme where a more senior employee is partnered up with a younger colleague who mentors them in a topic, or simply provides a fresh perspective on business. Social media is a good example of how this may work. While sending a pithy tweet that hits the marketing mark is second-nature to a millennial who grew up online, an older colleague may struggle with learning the unspoken etiquette of Twitter or Facebook. A reverse mentor will support and familiarise their older colleague with newer practices.
One of the real bonuses (and pleasures) of reverse mentoring is that it’s mutually beneficial. Although mentoring a new starter and seeing them develop is extremely satisfying for senior colleagues, it offers only limited development of new skills for the mentor. If that relationship is reversed, the older employee gains new skills while their younger colleague has the benefit of a close-up relationship with an experienced and usually senior colleague.
How reverse mentoring developed
General Electric is thought to be the first large organisation to formalise this approach to mentoring. In the nineties, the then-CEO Jack Welch recognised that he and his senior team had scant understanding of the rising phenomenon called ‘the internet’. He decided to pair up GE executives with young, technically-inclined mentors. To ensure that this radical approach became accepted among senior professionals, he himself took on his own young mentor.
Since then, other companies have discovered this approach and adopted it to suit their own needs. Here are examples of how organisations have benefited from reverse mentoring.
Estée Lauder: targeting the youth market
In a market of youthful beauty bloggers and with an ageing customer base, established cosmetics company Estée Lauder needed to find ways to reach out to a burgeoning millennial market. Their reverse mentoring approach began in 2014, when CEO Fabrizio Freda was taken on a “retail immersion day” by a group of young colleagues. By simply spending time in shops together, the team demonstrated to their open-minded CEO how millennials “fall in love with brands”. This led to a formalised reverse mentoring programme and by last year 300 of the company’s senior execs had been partnered up with younger colleagues. So far the new programme has led to a new range, Estée Edit, promoted by influential social celebs such as Kendall Jenner.
Microsoft Norway: developing leadership skills
Microsoft Norway has enthusiastically embraced reverse mentoring. General Manager Michael Jacobs is mentored by 28-year-old Magnus Svorstol Lie. They meet every two months, with Magnus setting the agenda. Both are enthusiastic about the business implications of their mentoring relationship. However for senior executive Michael, it’s come to mean something less tangible and more personally beneficial. He said:
“If you want to learn something, you need to explore new ideas. By reversing the mentoring approach, and letting Magnus steer the wheel, I’ve been able to reflect on my own leadership and how it resonates throughout the organisation.”
For Kristin Ruud, Microsoft Norway’s HR Lead, the decision to encourage reverse mentoring was an obvious one. Speaking about Generations Y and Z, she says there are “invaluable insights to be harvested from full engagement with this group, insights that will help ensure we are able to meet the needs of a demanding consumer market.”
Proctor & Gamble: fighting inequality
Proctor & Gamble was struggling with retaining its female managers and had very few women at senior level. By undertaking what European Mentoring and Coaching Council co-founder Professor David Clutterbuck terms “diversity reverse mentoring”, the company was able to work towards retaining talented women. Female junior managers were teamed up with senior execs of both genders as part of their “Mentor Up” programme. Brand Developer Roisin Donnelly told Marketing Week that although the scheme is open to all, over 75% of women at P&G have a dedicated mentor or adviser:
“We are actively building diversity at P&G because we know it creates business results and drives better creativity, and mentoring is an important part of that… Over the years it has helped us improve retention and the gender split.”
As Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College Cambridge, comments, simply spending time observing and appreciating the daily challenges women face can help address workplace issues. Of course, this applies to other aspects of diversity besides gender. It could also be used to improve workplace culture for BME, LGBT or disabled colleagues.
Setting up a successful scheme
Successful reverse mentoring schemes don’t rely on knowledge sharing happening organically. Some senior managers may feel patronised by being mentored by a junior colleague, so setting out a formal process will smooth things over. It’s even better if you have a hands-on and supportive CEO (like Jack Welch) who is willing to lead from the top.
Reverse mentoring is often an executive being mentored by an up-and-coming young employee. However, there’s no reason why this practice can’t be cascaded to all levels throughout an organisation. For example, if a new software roll-out might stand to affect long-serving warehouse or reception staff, they could be mentored to pick up the necessary new skills from young tech-minded colleagues.
It’s important managers think carefully when planning their mentoring pairs: both colleagues need to have a committed interest in sharing skills. Partner up people who will challenge each other, but in a mutually respectful way. Professor David Clutterbuck emphasises the importance of properly preparing both parties for their roles, with coaching if necessary.
By reframing the idea of who can be a mentor, you open your organisation up to all sorts of learning possibilities. In essence, a mentor is anyone who has skills, knowledge and passion to share. Use the creativity and talents of your team to bridge the seniority gap, and everyone in your organisation will benefit.