Scholars as well as business practitioners have long recognized the importance of mentoring for organizations and the people in them. In recent years, an innovative type of mentoring has extended the traditional mentoring model by turning roles upside down with reverse mentoring relationships. Traditional mentoring relationships have been defined as those in which a more experienced person helps a less experienced organization member develop and advance at work. In contrast, reverse mentoring is a relationship in which a younger employee provides guidance and advice to an older upper-level manager or executive. Reverse mentoring happens from the bottom up, rather than the traditional top down.
Research shows that traditional mentoring relationships can offer both organizations and their members a wealth of benefits. Similarly, initial anecdotal evidence shows many benefits of reverse mentoring. While there is no existing research that examines reverse mentoring, companies that have created and encouraged these relationships report positive changes in the culture of the organization, better positioning of company products and campaigns to the younger market, creation of higher standards, improved knowledge of technological issues, and increases in effective cross-gender and cross-cultural communication throughout the organization. Senior-level managers and executives in the unusual role of protege report benefits that include exposure to fresh approaches, being more in touch with the changing needs of the upcoming business generation, better knowledge and understanding of the people who work for them, having a sounding board, and feeling excited about learning something new. Young mentors report feeling valued by their companies, satisfaction in having their expertise and knowledge confirmed, increased exposure to high-level executives, and appreciation for proving their skills.
Reverse Mentoring in Practice
The practice of reverse mentoring has been successfully introduced in many organizations. Former chief executive of General Electric Corporation, Jack Welch is typically credited with formalizing the concept of reverse mentoring when he encouraged approximately 500 GE managers to become students of those lower in the company hierarchy. The program at GE was specifically focused on creating mentoring relationships that would build a new skill set for proteges while giving mentors a unique opportunity to interact with higher-level managers with whom they otherwise would not have a relationship.
Proctor & Gamble’s Mentoring Up program was created to increase communication between junior-level female managers and senior-level male managers, determine why female managers were leaving the company, raise consciousness about work-related issues affecting women, and reduce future turnover of women. Another P&G reverse mentoring program was created to provide senior management new perspectives and better understanding of company culture in biotechnology. Internationally, AMP-Pearl in the United Kingdom implemented a reverse mentoring program by pairing 12 young employees with assistant directors, helping managers understand the shift in the business environment caused by technology. As a result, the company experienced a positive change in its corporate culture. Wharton Business School pairs established executives with Wharton students to learn,
create, and operate e-businesses. Students bring their knowledge of the latest technological developments to the table and create a working partnership with outside senior executives. The unique mentoring experience provides an opportunity for the executive managers to keep up to date on technology trends and provides opportunities for business school students to create relationships with business leaders.
Creating an Environment for Successful Reverse Mentoring
Developing a reverse mentoring program takes planning and development to succeed. As with traditional mentoring, there are bound to be informal relationships as well as formal reverse mentoring programs. In either case, there is a delicate balance between individuals in the relationship. A key ingredient for success is to ensure that both parties are interested and willing. Senior-level people must be open-minded to learning from a less experienced worker. The younger worker must be open-minded and feel comfortable with the relationship. Companies suggest that creating mentoring relationships outside of reporting lines is critical for the younger mentors.
Some of the basic steps in setting up an effective reverse mentoring program are to set clear objectives, treat each other with respect, consider generational differences, identify specific assignment of duties in the partnership and defined rules of conduct, and develop measurable outcomes to determine program effectiveness. As with any mentoring program, training helps the mentor, the protege—and the program itself —be successful.
Organizations are motivated to encourage reverse mentoring and implement such programs. For example, these relationships give both partners the opportunity to learn about and understand how to work with a generation other than their own. Upper-level managers learn how the new generation of employees wants to be managed and how they can translate that understanding into greater long-term success for the business.
The Future of Reverse Mentoring
Many reverse mentoring programs grew out of the need for upper-level managers to be more in tune with the changing technological age. Nevertheless, companies and people reap other benefits from these relationships. As organizations continue to establish formal mentoring programs, they are sure to consider reverse mentoring. Moreover, as the composition of the workforce inevitably continues to change along with attitudes of its new members, reverse mentoring can provide mutually beneficial partnerships for lower-level employees and upper-level managers to communicate and learn from one another. Thus it will become increasingly important to understand these nontraditional reverse mentoring relationships. If the growing trend of more top name corporations establishing reverse mentoring programs is any indication of the power of these programs’ success, it is sure to continue in the future.
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