Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

October 24, 2016


When most students and new professionals think about mentoring programs, they imagine an established professional offering sage advice that will help a new workforce entrant succeed. A growing number of organizations and their most senior professionals, however, see real value in reversing this process. They understand that someone in his or her 50s may not be as “in touch” with the future as someone who has just graduated from law or business school. So, they’re encouraging new workforce entrants to mentor up.

Whether or not your organization currently supports an official reverse mentoring program, every junior employee can mentor senior workers. Reverse mentoring can be critically important to the long-term success of an organization, and these programs may yield a variety of career-enhancing benefits to junior and senior participants alike.

Want to be a reverse mentor? Here’s what you need to know:

What is reverse mentoring?

Organizations have long understood that building a culture of coaching and mentoring may be among the best ways to improve employee engagement, productivity, and long-term retention. In most organizations, seniors mentor juniors. But, in an increasingly large number of organizations, this process has been reversed. Juniors now mentor seniors, reflecting a recognition that juniors often bring unique experiences and insights from which seniors can benefit.

According to one survey, most senior workers who are interested in entering into a reverse mentoring relationship want to develop specific technical skills. (See the New York Times article, “What Could I Learn From a Mentor Half My Age? Plenty”, in which a senior reporter describes how she worked with a junior employee to develop social media expertise.) Others indicate that they are interested in acquiring a younger perspective—to gain the ability to see today’s world with a less jaundiced pair of eyes.

Some of the most successful reverse mentoring relationships evolve organically over time without organizational insistence or support. The Bill Gates-Warren Buffet relationship stands as the perfect example of a traditional mentoring relationship that has morphed over time into a reverse mentoring relationship. Eons ago, at their first meeting, Buffet introduced Gates to an analytic exercise in which a person chooses a year in the past, identifies the ten highest-capitalization companies from that year, and then looks forward 20 years to see how those companies fared and why. Gates says it was an enlightening experience that helped him think through Microsoft’s growth. Today, Buffet is just as likely to turn to Gates to acquire a new way of looking at the world—especially when it comes to ensuring that his charitable gifts yield real results.

Roles and Responsibilities

Just like a traditional mentoring relationship, reverse mentoring succeeds when all parties enter into the relationship understanding their roles and responsibilities. At a minimum, parties to the relationship should undertake the following:

Seniors should clarify their skill and knowledge gaps. In a world that is changing at lightening speed, it’s difficult for everyone to keep up with critically important industry developments as well as new technologies. Some established professionals find it difficult to admit what they don’t know. But if and when they do, the door has been opened wide for a junior step forward as a mentor. By the way, data suggests that the Baby Boomer generation is unusually receptive to ongoing and continuous personal growth. To the extent a junior posits a reverse mentoring relationship as a way to foster this type of growth, he or she will likely find Baby Boomers are extremely open to these relationships.

Seniors and juniors should be carefully matched. Thoughtful pairings help ensure that a specific junior can provide the skills and/or knowledge that a senior seeks. If you are interested in becoming a reverse mentor, know the skills that you bring to the table and keep your eyes open for seniors who need those skills.

Seniors should initiate discussions. Many organizations have established assigned mentoring relationships for their newest employees. As the junior progresses, he or she is expected to initiate mentoring relationships with other established workers on his or her own. The same should occur in a reverse mentoring relationship. The person who seeks to be mentored should ask.

This doesn’t mean, however, that a junior should feel barred from taking the first step. In fact, an established professional may be particularly impressed with the junior who takes the initiative to respectfully say, “You know, I think I could help bring you up to speed on….”

Once two people agree to enter into a mentoring relationship, they should clarify and confirm expectations—what are the key goals that both parties seek to achieve; what’s a reasonable timeline for accomplishing those goals; how often will they meet; and what do they wish to accomplish during each meeting.

If you happen to be a senior professional interested in entering into a reverse mentoring relationship, keep in mind that any junior mentor has offered to provide a special service for which they will likely not be compensated. (Reverse mentoring generally is performed above-and-beyond normal work duties.) Senior protégés should be especially conscious of thanking reverse mentors for their insights and assistance. If possible, the senior protégé should look for ways that he or she can “return the favor” by providing special career assistance in kind.

Special Advice for Millennial Mentors

To the extent that you have opted to serve as a mentor to someone who is far older than you—perhaps a member of the Baby Boomer Generation or Gen X—please recognize that your senior protégé is dealing with a world that is changing at breakneck speed. Virtually every human being, when we encounter change, progresses through a series of stages. Initially, we deny the change is necessary. Then we fight the change tooth-and-nail. Eventually, we move into acceptance. Don’t be surprised if your protégé initially expresses fear and frustration. View this as an opportunity to help him or her effectively navigate in an ever-changing world.

For a Baby Boomer protégé, you may wish to emphasize that you appreciate their ideas and input. Understand that most Baby Boomers have allowed their careers to define them. So describe how accomplishing the goals of the mentoring relationship will help the Boomer prepare and distinguish him- or herself in this, the most recent stage of their professional lives.

For a Gen X protégé, focus on establishing an informal yet still respectful relationship.

Thing You Need to Know:

Reverse mentoring programs yield huge benefits for junior and senior employees alike. If you wish to become a reverse mentor, identify the special skills and knowledge that you can share with a senior worker.



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