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How to Use Reverse Mentoring at Your Company

Chris Lennon
By Chris Lennon Vice President of Product Management, BirdDogHR

The typical executive didn’t get to a leadership position on their own; most have benefited from mentoring relationships as they climbed the career ladder. Junior and mid-level professionalswith mentors advance more quickly, earn higher salaries and are more satisfied in their jobs than professionals without mentors.

Once arriving in the C-suite, however, the average executive will act as a mentor far more often than a mentee. While there are enormous advantages to being a mentor, it requires a person to be a source of knowledge, leaving little room to address gaps in existing knowledge, ask questions or embrace new skills. Mentees have the freedom to try, fail and learn; experiences that can make a strong leader even stronger. Just when executives could most benefit from being exposed to a wider range of perspectives and advice, they have fewer places to get those perspectives.

Age and role don’t have to dictate the direction of a mentoring relationship. The iconic Napoleon sought insight from a mentor 30 years his junior, and your executives can also learn from the perspective of younger workers through a system called reverse mentoring. Particularly in industries like manufacturing, engineering and construction where technology is advancing quickly, leaders and senior team members can thrive with opportunities to learn from younger, more tech-savvy employees.

Here’s how to set up a reverse mentoring program for your employees to keep them engaged—no matter their age or existing experience.

The Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

Research shows CEOs and executives reap rewards from being mentored. In fact, 71% of CEOs with formal mentoring arrangements said their company performance had improved as a result. What’s more, 69% said they were making better decisions. Despite the value reverse mentoring offers, getting employee buy-in—especially from executives—may be difficult at first.

The two main challenges to implementing a successful reverse mentoring program are convincing executives that it’s worth their time to be mentored and to take advice and learn from someone younger than they are. It’s important for HR to articulate the benefits of reverse mentoring and make sure that everyone at your organization understands them.

To help foster employee buy-in for your program, you can highlight the following best practices that reverse mentoring can make a difference for all the employees at your company.

1. Get Older Executives Up to Snuff with Technology: The rise of reverse mentoring in the workplace can be tied to the rise of the internet. Jack Welch, General Electric’s former CEO, introduced a reverse mentoring program in 1999 when he directed hundreds of his top managers to find young employees to teach them about the internet.

Twenty years later, helping older employees better understand digital technology is still a big driver of reverse mentoring. Executives and senior team members can learn about social media, mobile technology and apps, as well as other aspects of digital media and technology from younger, tech-savvy employees.

2. Prepare Young Workers to Become Leaders: Baby Boomers are starting to leave the workforce and there simply aren’t enough GenXers to take their roles. Millennials will soon be the most-represented generationin the workforce and they will have to fill the gap. They will also have to do so at a much younger age than previous cohorts.

Reverse mentoring gives these young workers exposure to executives and provides them with the chance to develop their leadership skills. This will help manufacturing and engineering companies close the existing skills gap and nurture key talent to step into the shoes of older leaders as they retire.

3. Engage Younger Employees: Employee disengagement is a pressing problem at many companies, with one Gallup study finding that 70% of U.S. workers were not engaged at work.

Reverse mentoring won’t solve all your company’s disengagement problems, but it will make a huge difference for young employees tapped to mentor executives. Having a direct relationship with decision-makers at the company can help engage and inspire young employees. Acting in a mentor role can also give young employees a greater sense of purpose within the company. Giving employees the title of mentor recognizes that they have something to offer, which can help to make employees at all levels feel more valued and engaged in their work.

4. Foster Generational Understanding: At times, it can seem like different generations speak different languages. Reverse mentoring can foster generational understanding and help executives understand their younger employees and customers. This helps on both a personal level and a business level.

For instance, a CEO of a managed healthcare company learned that while he was focused on patient outcomes, his Millennial mentor’s generation was just as concerned about the speed of access to care and customer service. This expanded the CEO’s knowledge of the quality of care and helped him make better business decisions.

Steps to Set Up Your Reverse Mentoring Program

Here’s what your HR department needs to do to start this new take on mentoring at your organization.

Create Mentoring Agreements: Most mentoring relationships work better with formal mentoring agreements. Your HR department can create a template to use as a formal agreement, which will help keep mentors and mentees on the same page.

Agreements should provide details on:

  • The frequency of meetings: Busy executives may not want to meet more than once a month but maintaining a regular schedule should be encouraged.
  • What the goals are for the relationship: What specifically do mentees want to get out of the relationship? They may be seeking particular skills or fresh perspectives on problems, for example.
  • Length of the relationship: Some mentoring relationships last for a few months and then end. Others can last much longer, depending on employee needs.

Consider How Mentors and Mentees Will Be Matched

Your organization can encourage mentees to reach out to potential mentors on their own or to create a more formal program—your HR department can match up mentors and mentees. The formal program approach may work better if you suspect your employees won’t feel confident or comfortable taking the initiative to build a relationship with a potential mentor by themselves.

To successfully match mentors and mentees, HR representatives must first create a process for identifying good candidates to be mentees and candidates to be mentors. Will managers recommend employees as mentors and mentees? Will you open a channel for employees to volunteer themselves? Strong candidates for mentors should be encouraging, honest and patient, while acceptable mentees need to be open to ideas and interested in self-improvement.

Once your HR department has identified mentors and mentees, think about how you will match them. Some companies see reverse mentorship as an opportunity to expose mentees to mentors of not only a different generation but also of different life experience. This means your team will have to take the time to assess each individual in the program to ensure the most effective learning opportunity.

Establish Accountability and Evaluation Measures

Once you’ve put all the effort into establishing your reverse mentoring program, don’t neglect to build in accountability and evaluation. This will allow you to monitor progress and measure the results of the program. Conduct surveys or interviews with mentors and mentees on a regular basis to determine what they’re learning and how their mentoring relationships could be improved.

By continually refining your reverse mentoring program, you ensure that participants get the most out of the experience—and your organization thrives from their increased engagement and development.

Chris Lennon is vice president of product management at BirdDogHR. Lennon is an active participant in the talent management community bringing more than 18 years of experience to BirdDogHR. He has presented at numerous industry events and has been quoted as an industry expert in publications like TLNT, SHRM, CEOWORLD Magazine and more.

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