Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Published: August 19, 2022
Senior executives spend years building experience, skills, and knowledge on their way up the corporate ladder. Yet many may have a disconnect with the ever-changing world around them as technological, cultural and social norms evolve quickly.
Keeping up with it all while running an organization is a tall task. Thankfully, there's a shortcut: reverse mentoring.
As millennials now make up most of the workforce, they’re in a prime position to become mentors to senior leadership. Allowing younger employees a bigger influence in management can spur innovation and build talent pipelines, as companies transition to the next generation of workers.
What is reverse mentoring?
Reverse mentoring is a form of peer-to-peer coaching where junior employees offer mentorship to senior leaders. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, first coined the term in the early ’90s after realizing the importance of the internet for businesses.
The goal is to help older execs learn new technologies — and adjust to societal changes so they can better understand and communicate with younger colleagues and consumers.
For example, an older CEO may not understand social media and how to use it to connect with Gen Z customers. A younger employee can mentor the CEO, teaching them ways to leverage social platforms for business.
A reverse mentorship program doesn’t always have to be with a younger employee and an older manager. It’s about the experience level of the individual in a specific skill or area.
For instance, a 45-year-old salesperson who recently made a switch to marketing can teach their 30-year-old manager about sales software. Or an 40-year-old Black employee might mentor a 35-year-old White manager about microaggressions in the workplace.
Reverse mentoring benefits and examples
Bridge generational gaps
As Gen Zers and Gen Alpha (the newest generation) enter the job market, ensuring a connection between the generations will be crucial to maintain a collaborative workplace.
Reverse mentoring enables companies to prioritize knowledge-sharing and keep communication and teamwork thriving in the face of social and technological differences.
But don’t just stop with one-on-one mentorship. Dennis Consorte, founder of marketing advice platform Snackable Solutions, involved millennial and Zoomer workers when his company was developing its core values and culture.
“Start with a team meeting to brainstorm your core values and give younger members a platform to express their ideas,” advises Consorte. “Tell them why their voice matters and ask open-ended questions that get people talking. Ask for stories and then draw conclusions as a group.”
For example, ask a Zoomer to describe their experience working on a project they liked, and dig deeper to find out values that matter to them. Once the older leaders get a better grasp of how younger workers think and feel, they can adjust their leadership style accordingly. Better management leads to better talent retention, and more engaged workers all around.
Enable learning (on both sides)
In a reverse mentoring relationship, both the mentor and mentee benefit from the experience. For example, mentees can learn about:
New technologies, such as cryptocurrency, NFTs, and social networking.
Different cultures and demographics, particularly those they engage with in the workplace or advertise to.
New communication styles, like adopting Slack (and even emoji and chat etiquette) vs. relying on emails or phone calls.
Meanwhile, mentors can learn:
Leadership skills, which may be a boon for their career.
Ways to identify and address generational or cultural roadblocks in the workplace.
How to communicate with senior leaders without fear or prejudice.
Shaurya Jain, founder of digital marketing agency Samurai Marketers, is a proponent of learning from everyone in an organization, regardless of their age, profession, or social status.
“A few months ago, we hired an intern who’s very good at filmmaking. I don’t have any expertise in that area. However, I wanted to experiment with [video] podcasting,” says Jain.
So he reached out to the intern for help with scripting, camera setup, and other technicalities. The intern also guided him on camera angles, the basics of lighting, and types of microphones to use.
“If someone has a unique skill set you don’t have and are curious about it, don’t hesitate to communicate with the person who possesses those skills. A key to any good professional relationship is open communication, and as a leader, it is our responsibility to establish that channel in our organization.”
Increase diversity and inclusion
Post-millennials are set to be the most diverse generation yet. According to Pew Research, there will be more US-born minorities (Hispanic, Black, and Asian) than ever before.
Reverse mentorship can be an opportunity to educate senior leaders about racial or gender issues in the industry and in the company. It can lead to discussions and policies that stop and prevent discrimination and increase upward mobility for women and minorities.
MagicLinks founder Alexis Papadopoulos was initially reluctant to start reverse mentorship programs. But as she came to a deeper understanding of the concept, it made sense for her and her social commerce firm, which caters to consumers under 35.
“An individual on our team in their 20s… helped us to develop a policy for 30% minimum BIPOC representation in all of our brand partnerships,” recalls Papadopoulos. “MagicLinks was the first social commerce company to adopt this requirement, and we’re proud to see competitors copy this policy."
When selecting mentors to promote diversity, be mindful of their desire to participate. While some may be thrilled to mentor senior leaders about the challenges of ethnic minorities or working mothers, others may not greet the opportunity with the same enthusiasm.
Some people may not want to rehash traumatic stories, or they may feel they don’t have strong enough views or experiences to contribute as a DEI mentor. To make sure everyone has a good experience, have a one-on-one with any potential mentors first to get their thoughts.
Improve company culture
Millennials are fueling the Great Resignation, increasing churn rates in businesses across the nation. Not far behind are the Zoomers. Appealing to and retaining young talent today is a challenge for many organizations.
A survey from Fortune shows Gen Z and millennials want to work in companies offering:
Good work-life balance
Positive work culture
A sense of meaning for the work
Reverse mentoring provides younger employees a way to build and display leadership skills, and it gives them a hand in developing a company culture they can be proud of.
Additionally, involving your junior employees more can help your brand attract younger consumers. Millennials and Zoomers make up 42% of American shoppers, and they select brands based on their values. If your company increases diversity and inclusion and builds a healthier workplace, it may become more attractive to young buyers.
The opposite can also be true — a McKinsey study shows most Gen Z buyers will boycott brands that have ad campaigns that are macho, racist, or homophobic.
Though problematic ads can happen unintentionally, involving young mentors who have a better understanding of today’s culture can prevent these types of mishaps.
Boost retention (on both sides)
Generational and technological gaps place strains on workers. It can make younger employees feel unheard, or push senior leaders out the door because they lack the ability to appeal to young consumers.
Reverse mentorship increases retention rates by promoting healthy engagement between senior and junior colleagues, and preventing disconnects between leadership and its target audience.
“In our experience, reverse mentoring helped us recognize that younger employees often have insights that can benefit executive decision-making,” says Anthony Martin, founder and CEO of insurance agency Choice Mutual.
“The trick is to be very specific about what areas they have access to and how they can offer feedback. This way, employees feel empowered, but don’t overstep,” advises Martin.
“Using and implementing new technology is a great example where our younger employees can mentor execs and build lasting relationships that benefit both parties. Younger employees can see a future for themselves in a company that values their input, and executives get to know their employees on more than a superficial level.”
Reverse mentoring framework
To build a successful reverse mentoring program, start with an organized structure to ensure compliance and results.
Matt Reeves, CEO of the mentoring program Together Platform, offers insights for developing a framework for reverse mentoring:
Have clear roles and expectations. It’s easy for a senior leader to change the conversation from “I’m here to learn from you” to “here’s some advice.”
Ensure junior employees feel safe to share. Senior leaders who act as mentees should preface the relationship by explaining that the advice is to help them gain a new perspective. You don’t want junior employees to think sharing critical feedback will damage their careers.
Have mentees (leaders) follow up with their mentors about impact. It’s frustrating to put effort into something and never see the results. If leaders take lessons from their sessions but don’t share how it impacts company policy or strategy, it’s not very encouraging to junior employees. Instead, leaders should go to their mentors and let them know how their advice spurred changes in the business.
It’s also a good idea to set schedules and communication channels for mentors and mentees to meet. This way, there’s consistency and convenience on both ends.
For instance, participants in PwC’s reverse mentoring program meet quarterly to discuss issues. Others may do monthly one-hour sessions, in person, or via webcam.
As you build a reverse mentorship program, choose mentors and mentees carefully. Consider the goals of the company, then identify the knowledge gaps in leadership and which junior employees can help fill them.
Reverse mentoring topics and questions
To make the most of the mentorship, mentors should ask mentees questions to learn more about their gaps. Examples of reverse mentoring questions include:
What roadblocks do you have in understanding younger customers or colleagues?
What tools do you struggle to use for work?
What are your key struggles with learning about Gen Z (or other topics)?
What are some things you’d like to learn about (subject)?
What experiences have you had with (subject) in the past?
How are you dealing with the changes presented by (subject)?
When selecting reverse mentoring topics, zone in on:
Biases in the workplace
Conflicts between different generations in and outside the workplace
New technologies introduced to the company
Viewpoints of various cultures that may conflict with the mentees’.
In today’s world, many companies have five generations working together — and it’ll continue as youngsters join the workforce while older workers opt to elongate their careers.
By making reverse mentoring a part of your company culture, you can reduce generational gaps that appear now and in the future.
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