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24 Aug 2023

Reverse Mentoring - Closing the Skills Gap on Both Sides

Reverse Mentoring - Closing the Skills Gap on Both Sides
Image Credit: Brooke Cagle

People often think that the more experienced you are, the less you need to learn. However, newer, or more junior team members often have valuable skills, a fresh perspective and expertise that can benefit their more established colleagues.

In this article, we'll look at how reverse mentoring can help you to bridge organizational hierarchies and grow your skillset.

What Is Reverse Mentoring?

Reverse mentoring encourages employees to form “professional friendships” - regardless of seniority – to exchange skills, knowledge, and understanding.

The former CEO of General Electric®, Jack Welch, is credited with inventing the concept of reverse mentoring. He recognized his lack of technology skills in the late 1990s, and believed that the youngest people joining the company were far more knowledgeable about new technologies than their managers. So, he asked 500 of his top executives to seek out mentors from among these new joiners.

Traditionally, a mentor is expected to be more senior and more experienced than their mentee. However, reverse mentoring recognizes that there are skills gaps on both sides, and that each person can address their weaknesses with the help of the other's strengths.

Note:

To learn more about traditional mentoring and how it differs from this approach, see our introductory articles on Mentoring and What Is Coaching?

Why Form a Reverse Mentoring Relationship?

Reverse mentoring can play an important role in crossing generational divides. Not only does it encourage communication across multi-generational workforces but it can also help to break down harmful stereotypes about different ages groups.

But reverse mentoring isn’t just about age. New starters can provide fresh perspectives and ways of working, while long-serving team members likely posses a wealth of organizational knowledge.

Reverse mentoring creates opportunities to diversify your skillsets and showcase your own knowledge at the same time.

Note:

It's important to leave your prejudices at the door. You may believe that millennials are entitled or that older generations are resistant to change, but these assumptions are likely far from the truth. Treat each member of your team as an individual, and use your best judgment when setting up a reverse mentoring relationship.

Examples of Reverse Mentoring:

Example A
Mohammed has just joined a high-profile tech company as a high-level manager. However, the organizational structure proves to be confusing. In contrast, Sarah has been a mid-level executive for almost six years, and is keen to progress.

Mohammed reaches out to Sarah to help him get to grips with the company layout. In return for her help, Mohammed is able to highlight skills for Sarah to develop in order to improve her chances of securing a promotion.

Example B

Amirah is the CEO of her own company. However, as the organization grows so has the demand for her to be active on social media. As a relative newcomer to platforms like Pinterest® and Hootsuite®, Amirah pairs up with her social media manager Taylor to learn the ropes.

Amirah is now able to connect more effectively with potential customers, while Taylor has been able to build a valuable relationship with their CEO.

Example C

Ted is a developer and has been stuck on a coding issue for months so he asks his new colleague, Jessica for advice. Despite only being at the company for a couple weeks, Jessica is able to use her fresh perspective to pick apart the problem and find a solution quickly.

Drawbacks of Reverse Mentoring

There are several potential drawbacks when you engage in a reverse mentoring partnership.

First, more senior team members may not believe that their younger mentors have valuable knowledge to share, and they may not be open to receiving feedback from people with less experience. Conversely, newer team members need to feel confident enough to share their opinions, and they may be less willing to participate if they are afraid of giving feedback to more established colleagues.

You may also find that people are unwilling to dedicate time in their already busy schedules to mentor a person they don't like or respect.

Finally, your role may not need much knowledge of new technology – in these situations, reverse mentoring partnerships may only be "nice to have," rather than "highly desirable."

How to Create a Successful Reverse Mentoring Partnership

Follow these five steps to set up an effective reverse mentoring relationship with a more junior team member.

1. Identify Good Potential Partners

An effective mentoring relationship needs good chemistry between both participants. Your ideal partner should have skills or knowledge that you need and be willing to build a relationship with you. You may want to conduct a Personal SWOT Analysis to identify strengths and weaknesses that you can address.

You can also develop a relationship with someone externally who has different life and work experiences. Be careful not to share sensitive information about your organization if you do this, and get appropriate permission first.

Tip 1:

Read our article on Professional Networking and our Bite-Sized Training session on Networking Skills to learn how to make contacts outside your existing group.

Tip 2:

HR departments should try to avoid forcing mentoring relationships on people who, fundamentally, have no interest in engaging with them, or who don't respect the person they're being paired with.

2. Set Clear Goals and Expectations

You should discuss your expectations for the relationship with your mentoring partner upfront. Make sure that you're both committed, and that your goals are aligned. What do you want to get out of the relationship? What specific skills do you want to learn? What knowledge, skills and experience can you provide? How and where will you meet?

3. Work on Your Communication Skills

It can be challenging to communicate with someone with vastly different experience or skills. For example, some people may feel more comfortable engaging with others by email or instant messaging, while others may prefer to speak on the telephone or meet in person. So, make sure that you're sensitive to the other person's communication preferences and needs.

Tip:

Take our "How Good Are Your Communication Skills?" quiz to improve your skills in this area.

4. Be Tactful, Patient and Open-Minded

Both you and your reverse mentoring partner must be open to learning from one another. So, remain respectful, and listen actively without any preconceived ideas.

Don't get frustrated if your partner doesn't understand the skills you're trying to share. Instead, communicate with tact, and give encouraging feedback that doesn’t belittle their knowledge. Use constructive feedback to help them understand your perspective.

5. Measure Your Progress

Check in regularly to ensure that you are both happy with the relationship, and that you're getting the information you need. However, if you are not making your desired progress, schedule a brainstorming session and discuss new ways to achieve your goals.

Key Points

In a reverse mentoring partnership colleagues “pair up” – regardless of seniority – to learn from one another. This can benefit both parties' careers in several ways:

  • Sharing specific expertise such as technology or leadership skills.
  • Bridging generational and hierarchical gaps to improve communication.
  • Encouraging collaborations across teams.

The ideal reverse mentoring relationship will have:

  • A mutually beneficial exchange or skills and/ or knowledge.
  • Clear goals and expectations to measure the success of the partnership.
  • Honest, respectful communication and regular meetings.
  • Open-minded approaches to teaching and learning.

References

Myers, K.K. and Sadaghiani, K. (2010) ‘Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’ Organizational Relationships and Performance,’ Journal of Business and Psychology, Volume 25, Issue 2. June 2010. (Available here.)

Glass, A. (2007) ‘Understanding Generational Differences for Competitive Success,’ Industrial and Commercial Training, Volume 39, Issue 2. (Available here.)


Source: Mind Tools

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