Taking Advantage of Reverse Mentoring

How pros and novices can teach each other

Tips for Two
To get the most out of your own reverse mentoring relationship, listen more than you talk. The idea is for you to learn from your colleague as much, if not more, as you impart.

Never breach the confidentiality of the relationship. Trust between participants is the key to success.

Allow discovery; help your mentoring partner solve his or her problem on their own, rather than giving direction or doing it for them.

The traditional definition of mentoring is one person helping another person to achieve something. Most mentoring scenarios assume the pairing of an accomplished, seasoned leader and a younger employee, with the goal of providing guidance and skills development to the newbie.

But today, savvy firms and executives are turning to "reverse mentoring," a higher-level knowledge exchange in which individuals within the organization -- seasoned and novice -- encourage mutual growth and gain new knowledge and expertise as a result.

The practice was made popular by Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, who required his top-level executives to reach out to employees below them to learn how to use the Internet. More recently, Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, explained reverse mentoring as "a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you're in your 40s and 50s, you're not in touch with the future the same way the young twenty-somethings are. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future."

With technology and global business changing so rapidly, companies and individuals must maximize the potential of every resource at their disposal. Reverse mentoring has become a way for businesses to strengthen skills and competencies in the interest of remaining competitive and relevant in today's marketplace.

Goals and Benefits The goal of reverse mentoring is to jump-start innovative thinking and to close the knowledge gap for both parties. When done properly, it gives a less-experienced employee on-the-job training and access to a veteran's business acumen, while the tenured employee learns about the latest technology trends and skills. Other benefits:

• Increased productivity. Reverse mentoring gives employees a built-in system for getting questions answered and finding resources quickly, saving time and effort.  

• Employee satisfaction and engagement. An effective reverse-mentoring relationship is an inexpensive tool that produces increased confidence, greater awareness of organizational politics and culture, expanded communication skills and improved employee loyalty.

• Retention. Reverse mentoring is a practical approach to career and leadership development, a key ingredient in keeping employees at all levels satisfied and engaged in the firm.

Setting Up Companies looking to gain the most benefit from this kind of interaction will want to create a formal mentoring structure, rather than relying on informal arrangements. Some advice:

Meet with participants to relay the company's objectives for the program.

Provide training and support for participants.

Use discretion when pairing individuals. Reverse mentoring is not for everyone, so pairing staffers who can complement each other and enhance the other's skill set is key to the success of the program.

Have teams write out their own goals for the relationship, and have them schedule regular meetings with each other.

Schedule periodic meetings for teams and management to review goals and progress.