28 September 2021
Reverse mentoring and why you should consider it
An unusual concept to some, reverse mentoring is a valuable way for senior leaders to better understand their employees
“People say, ‘how can you sell this for such a low price?’ I say, ‘because it's total total crap’.” – Gerald Ratner, CEO, Ratners Group, 1991
It could be argued that if Gerald Ratner had undertaken a reverse mentoring programme earlier in his career, he might not have committed this most famous of business speech gaffes. If he’d put himself in the shoes of his customers or employees, he would have paused for thought. People don’t like to be told they’re either buying or selling ‘crap’.
Even so, the very concept of reverse mentoring may still be anathema to some.
“What could I possibly learn from some snotty little whippersnapper in the post room?” said the imaginary managing director of an imaginary fashionwear company that made clothing for precisely the whippersnapper’s demographic.
Well, quite a lot probably – especially with sales stagnating.
So, what is reverse mentoring?
The idea behind reverse mentoring is to get senior leaders in business (CEOs, MDs, owners, directors and higher-level management) to gain a better understanding of how other people think and behave. ‘Other people’ can mean a whole range of positions and roles within (and sometimes outside) the organisation, including:
- Junior or less experienced employees.
- People from different backgrounds and/or with different lived experiences.
For a sixty-something CEO this could be enlightening. He or she will get to see and understand more about:
- How to communicate inclusively across the workforce and with different demographics, including customers.
- Employee and customer attitudes and drivers. (It’s not necessarily about how much you get paid or how much you pay for something…)
- How they and the business is perceived by people who may also fit their customer profile.
- Breaking out of comfort zones and challenging the status quo.
- Learning about and understanding new technologies. – Millennials and Gen Z have grown up using a whole range of devices and applications that are second nature to them.
A two-way street
Inevitably though, reverse mentoring usually becomes something of a two-way street. The junior person will also broaden their knowledge, experience and horizons through interacting with the senior mentee.
Additionally, for younger or less experienced employees to know their opinions are valued within the senior ranks of their organisation is a big motivator. Being asked to share their experiences and views will strengthen their connection with the organisation – a big positive, considering ‘job for life’ thinking and ‘hanging on for a gold watch’ at retirement are things of the past.
Reverse mentoring also builds connections and solidifies workplace relationships. Connection and knowing they’re valued and that the organisation they work for operates ethically and is socially responsible is important to Millennials and Generation Z. It also goes hand in hand with having a good equality, diversity and inclusion programme. Getting to understand and know how other groups and demographics perceive your business – and you individually – is incredibly valuable.
Additionally, reverse mentoring programmes can act as a catalyst to break down generational stereotypes that build-up in work environments:
- Older workers don’t understand technology.
- Younger workers are lazy, lack commitment and don’t concentrate.
- Older workers have a conservative outlook and are set in their ways.
- Younger workers are consumed by social media.
Break down misconceptions and embrace difference
When different age groups interact regularly, misconceptions get broken down. People begin to understand what motivates others, resulting in better collaboration and partnerships throughout the company. The same applies to building relationships and understanding outside the organisation, with clients, customers and suppliers.
Confronting and dismantling stereotypes we’ve mentally constructed and judgements we have probably all made at different times can only be a good thing. Echo chambers don’t generally make for good learning environments whereas exposure to and listening to different viewpoints do. Many a great idea came out of people with different ideas sitting down together.
Is it time to consider a reverse mentoring programme in your organisation?
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