Mentorship

Reverse mentoring: Connecting a multi-generation workplace

Unlock the power of reverse mentoring in your workplace. Bridge the generation gap, enhance diversity, and foster innovation. Learn how to start and run an effective reverse mentoring program today.

Matthew Reeves

Published on 

June 1, 2023

Updated on 

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Reverse mentoring challenges the notion that wisdom only flows in one direction in the workplace. While senior executives offer valuable advice to junior employees, their younger counterparts also have skills and fresh perspectives to teach their higher-ups. 

This concept was first developed in the 1990s to share technical skills. Now, it’s gained renewed relevance. 

A single age group often dominated workplaces in the past, but today we see a more diverse mix of ages and generations. For that reason, organizations need to ensure all generations are represented and respected. 

Reverse mentoring also holds tremendous potential for companies to address the novel challenges posed by hybrid working, diversity and inclusion, and dismantling generational stereotypes.

We’ll explore all this and more in our guide to reverse mentoring.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is when a more junior employee mentors someone more senior than them. The idea is that the junior employee can share their expertise (commonly, technology and digital media topics) with the senior colleague, who may be less familiar with these areas. 

When done correctly, reverse mentoring can be incredibly effective in developing talent and building bridges across generations

Thinking about a reverse mentoring program? We explore further down how to start a reverse mentoring program. Until then, keep these three things in mind:

  1. Define the program's purpose: What are the goals you’re trying to achieve with a reverse mentoring program?
  2. Select the right participants: Who will be the most effective mentors and mentees?
  3. Define the parameters and manage expectations of the program: What will be the structure and timeline of the program?

More on this later. But before that, let’s look at why reverse mentoring is crucial in today’s workplace and the workplace of the future.

A Reverse Mentoring Relationship

Reverse mentoring is when a more junior employee takes on the role of a mentor for a senior employee. The idea is that the junior employee can share their expertise (commonly, technology and digital media topics) with the senior colleague, who may be less familiar with these areas. 

When done correctly, reverse mentoring can effectively develop talent and build bridges across generations

Thinking about a reverse mentoring program? We explore further down how to start a reverse mentoring program. Until then, keep these three things in mind:

  1. Define the program's purpose: What are the goals you’re trying to achieve with a reverse mentoring program?
  2. Select the right participants: Who will be the most effective mentors and mentees?
  3. Define the parameters and manage expectations of the program: What will be the structure and timeline of the program?

More on this later. But before that, let’s look at why reverse mentoring is crucial in today’s workplace and the workplace of the future.


Why is reverse mentorship important in the workplace?

Reverse mentoring is a new concept, but it has recently gained increased attention as organizations strive to promote intergenerational collaboration and understanding. At its core, it’s a way to encourage knowledge sharing between generations.

Digital transformation is becoming a household name in organizations today. While change is good, the older generation may struggle with using new technologies. This is how Jordan Fabel, founder of ApprovedCourse, an educational careers website that helps people chart a path toward their dream job, learned about the latest technology from someone younger.

"In the field of online career guidance, Gen Z are so much more advanced in the technology. that's why I took it upon myself to be mentored by someone who was 15 years younger than me — to help me understand not only the struggles of their generation when it comes to finding jobs but also the strategies, voice and mediums that will help me reach them…This reverse mentorship was ideal as it presented me with insights into the mind of a generation I could not relate to."

In Jordan’s case, he wanted a reverse mentorship to stay sharp on new trends and to understand his target market which was Gen Z. But that’s not the only example out there. Let’s look at others.

Examples of reverse mentoring relationships

Further examples of a reverse mentoring relationship include:

  • A VP of finance receiving mentorship from a junior analyst on the latest fin-tech trends
  • A veteran sales executive coached by a recent college graduate on the best way to use social media for business development
  • It could be a millennial teaching a baby boomer how to use Snapchat as a marketing channel
  • A Gen Z employee mentoring a Gen X employee on the latest trends in technology

So there are many contexts where a reverse mentorship would be beneficial. But who should be the mentee? Let’s quickly look at who would benefit from taking the role of a mentee.

Which leaders should take on the role of mentee?

The mentee in reverse mentoring is typically someone at a higher level in the organization. They’re thinking about strategy, resourcing, and where the company is going years down the line. 

Because leaders are looking at the business from 30,000 feet, they can benefit from the perspectives and knowledge of a younger generation who are on the front lines. 

Who should assume the role of mentee?

  • The CEO
  • Senior executives
  • VPs
  • Senior managers

The goal is for the mentee to gain a different perspective on their work which will improve their decision-making. 

Now that we see several examples of reverse mentoring relationships, let’s look at the specific context of reverse mentoring at work. There are many ways to structure a reverse mentoring program in the workplace. Let’s look at 5.

5 Examples of reverse mentorship in the workplace

The reverse mentoring model offers companies many benefits. Let’s explore five primary advantages.

1. Supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion 

Diversity and inclusion have been long-standing issues in the corporate world for many years. Companies are constantly called upon to embrace a gender-diverse leadership practice. McKinsey argues that companies with more than 30% women executives are more likely to surpass companies with a low percentage of women executives

Michelle Ferguson, author of Women Mentoring Women, joined us to discuss how to support Employee Resource Groups with mentoring programs. During the conversation, she touched on the importance of reverse mentoring for DEI initiatives.

Reverse mentorship provides opportunities for underrepresented employees to gain valuable face-to-face time with leaders. Not only does this help their careers, but it gives leaders critical new perspectives.

Reverse mentoring is so effective for DE&I initiatives that we’ve published a separate article on reverse mentoring for diversity and inclusion to cover the topic in detail.

2. Closing the generational gap

We’ve touched on this already. Reverse mentoring bridges the gap between the many generations in a company. Senior employees finally have a platform to learn more about the new ideas junior employees possess. The junior employees can also access the older employees' wealth of information. 

However, for this to be effective, Christiaan Huynen - CEO/ Founder at Designbro.com, gives this insightful advice,

"Don't discriminate whom you learn from as what one knows is not about how old one is. It's about how long one has spent intense focus on something. Even if you are older, younger people can mentor you on a lot of things as we all have different life experiences and circumstances; they just might have the mastery on that which you currently do not have."

3. Millennial retention

Turnover is always a challenge, especially when the great resignation continues unabated. Recently, millennials have had negative feelings about their companies' ethics. Chief among the reasons for the negative perceptions of their workplace is the feeling that their leaders don't have their priorities set.

When leaders use reverse mentoring as a workplace practice, they demonstrate a keen interest in workers' well-being. It persuades millennials to remain in their roles to leverage this opportunity to improve their skills.

4. Enhancing creativity, open-mindedness and innovation

In today's fast-paced, ever-changing business world, it's more important for organizations to encourage creativity, open-mindedness and innovation. 

Reverse mentoring helps employees develop a more open-minded and innovative approach to their work. By working with someone from a different generation, you can learn new ways of thinking and challenge yourself to come up with fresh ideas.

5. Empowering emerging leaders 

Someday, the young generation of employees will become C-level executives. However, those individuals require adequate training and guidance to confidently enter the roles that await them.

Jame Taylor, Director at Dispense Digital, who benefitted from reverse mentoring, also noticed its effect on younger employees.

"As someone who has been mentored by younger staff in agency roles, I can say that the one common benefit is that the younger person doing the mentoring learns just how much they actually know about their role, and you can quickly see their confidence increasing because of the mentorship. It's often a positive outcome that the younger staff members were not expecting!”

With reverse mentoring, the younglings can develop communication skills and boost their self-confidence. Essentially, it allows the younger employees to know and embrace the tenets of a good leader.

How to run a reverse mentorship program without friction

Reverse mentoring can be difficult due to generational differences and stereotypes.

For instance, conflicts often arise between Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, and their more experienced counterparts. Complaints may surface about Baby Boomers being resistant to listening and younger employees being perceived as demanding excessive change without sufficient experience. Reverse mentoring offers a solution to these misconceptions.

To address this, fostering open communication and mutual respect is important. Encourage participants to approach the relationship with an open mind, valuing each other's experiences and viewpoints.

Since reverse mentoring challenges traditional hierarchies, power dynamics can become an issue and may lead to resistance or discomfort, especially if senior executives struggle with the idea of being mentored by a junior employee.

Ensure senior executives understand the benefits of reverse mentoring and emphasize the value of learning from a junior employee. It is crucial to emphasize that reverse mentoring is a two-way street, highlighting the reciprocal learning opportunities for mentors and mentees.

When you should run a reverse mentoring program vs a different kind of mentoring program

There are a few key things to consider when deciding whether or not to run a reverse mentoring program.

One-on-one mentoring Reverse mentoring Peer mentoring Group mentoring
Involves a senior employee giving a junior employee career guidance and advice.
One-on-one mentoring provides the individual with undivided attention from the mentor.
This allows for a more personalized learning experience and the individual to get the most out of the mentoring relationship.
A reverse mentoring program is a great way to promote cross-functional collaboration and understanding across a large organization.
When you want to give employees from different backgrounds a voice.
It’s also effective to transfer more general business knowledge or leadership skills.
Involves colleagues in mentoring and guiding one another. Companies lacking a sizable proportion of senior leaders find
peer mentoring to be quite helpful.
Peer mentoring is particularly useful for encouraging knowledge-sharing and building cultures of accountability.
Group mentoring involves connecting peers and leaders for focused conversations that lead to new learning. Group mentoring can usually take on any of the following three patterns:
• One mentor with multiple members
• Multiple mentors with multiple mentees
Organizations often adopt group mentoring to develop leadership skills, nurture communication skills, and more.

While reverse mentoring has attractive advantages, companies are urged to choose a program from the many available mentorship programs that align with their goals. 

How to start a reverse mentorship program

Below are the five proven ways to begin a reverse mentorship program. 

1. Define the objective 

Define your company's goals and link them to the desired results of the reverse mentoring program. Having an idea of some common mentoring program goals is beneficial. 

Set metrics with which your program will be rated. What do you hope to achieve? What kind of difference do you want to make? Keeping these things in mind will keep your program focused.The first step is clearly defining your reverse mentoring program's objective. This involves identifying the main purpose or goal of the program and understanding its importance to the participants. Doing so can create a roadmap for success and establish measurable criteria to evaluate the program's effectiveness.

For example:

Objective of the program: Enhancing cross-generational collaboration

Method: The reverse mentoring program will pair senior employees with junior employees from different generations. Senior employees gain from younger colleagues' perspectives, while junior employees learn from their seniors' expertise.

Success: The program aims to foster improved understanding, empathy, and collaboration among employees from different generations. By the end of the reverse mentoring program, participants should demonstrate increased cooperation and mutual respect, leading to enhanced teamwork and productivity.

Measure: Evaluation will be based on feedback surveys from both senior and junior employees, assessing their perceptions of intergenerational collaboration and teamwork. Also, qualitative assessments, such as interviews or focus groups, can be conducted to gather in-depth insights into the program's impact on relationships and overall workplace dynamics.

2. Fill in the details 

Upon outlining the expectations of the reverse mentoring program, determine the details of how the program will operate. 

Include details such as: 

  • Who will participate? 
  • Registration and matching process.
  • How long mentorships will last. 
  • What is the commitment needed from participants? 
  • How can you track and monitor the progress of mentorship? 

3. Attract participants 

Once you've got the details worked out, it's time to start recruiting employees to participate in the program. Mentors should be employees who are willing to share their expertise with others, and mentees should be employees who are interested in learning from those with more experience.

To get people interested, emphasize how the program will benefit both mentors and mentees. Consider offering incentives, such as extra paid time off, to sweeten the deal.

Identifying individuals who are enthusiastic about learning from others and have something to offer in terms of knowledge or experience is essential. You can decide to make it open for anyone to enroll or make it an invite-only affair. Here are some ideas for promoting and attracting participants to your program.

4. Pairing 

A key aspect of a reverse mentoring program is deciding how to pair participants.

A mismatched pairing is a reason for mentoring program failures in organizations.

Traditionally, matches are based on the mentor's skill set and the mentee's desired areas of improvement while considering personality traits and shared interests. Program managers can manually pair participants or use mentoring software.

However, manual matching carries the risk of unconscious bias or favoritism. Being acquainted with some participants but not others could influence the person who does the matching.

mentoring software like Together software allows program managers to choose a mentee-led, admin-led, or algorithm-led pairing.

Together software uses a sophisticated matching algorithm that ensures accurate pairing between mentors and mentees, eliminating human bias and promoting inclusivity. This aspect is particularly crucial when utilizing reverse mentoring to enhance diversity and inclusion efforts.

5. Launch and track your mentorships 

After you've recruited participants, paired mentors and mentees, and provided them with guidance, it's time to launch the program—why not host a party to kickstart the program? 

Once the program is up and running, track progress and assess the impact on your business goals. This can be done through surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Following these steps, you can start a reverse mentorship program to help your company achieve its goals.

Examples of companies running reverse mentoring programs 

Reverse mentoring programs helped several companies achieve growth at varying levels. The following five leading companies have reverse mentoring as part of their L&D programs for employees: 

1. Heineken

Together's platform has enabled popular beer brand Heineken to operate its reverse mentoring program with great success. The success rate is incredibly high, with 86% of senior leaders doubling as mentees revealing that they wanted to connect with the junior employees to acquire new skills. 

2. Caterpillar

After recording great success with their mentoring programs, Caterpillar moved to establish a reverse mentoring program called an employee resource group, or ERG. 

According to Tana Utley, VP of Caterpillar's Large Power Systems Division, millennials share a different belief about the work world, and senior executives must understand that stance.

3. General Electric

GE's former CEO, Jack Welch, is regarded as the founder of reverse mentoring. In the 90s, he accepted his lack of technology skills and believed the younger employees were more knowledgeable about that field and could teach their higher-ups. The company has carried on that practice since then. 

Recently, GE's global managing partner, Andrew Ballheimer, engaged in the process and thoroughly enjoyed it. It led to a Financial Times article that demonstrated the positive effects of reverse mentoring. For instance, it allowed his mentor to share insights with him on the experiences of employees belonging to minority groups and how to recognize their talents more. 

4. Unilever and P&G 

Using the reverse mentoring model allowed Daisy Gray, an employee, to enroll in the company's program as a mentor and mentee. It provided leeway to discussions revolving around cultural differences and inclusivity. 

5. PwC 

The global consulting firm, PwC began its reverse mentoring program in 2014 to drive its diversity and inclusion efforts. Today, the program comprises 122 millennials mentoring 200 senior partners and directors. 

The program runs on the belief that neither age nor seniority determines who leads the relationship. 

So, is reverse mentoring worth it? 

If you're wondering, "Does my company need a reverse mentoring program? You're asking the right question! 

Reverse mentoring does benefit the employees and the organization. It bridges the gap between different age groups within the organization, fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing.

For example, Ian Kelly, the CEO of NuLeaf Naturals, benefited immensely from reverse mentoring, took the risk to leave his position at T-Mobile to join the Hemp industry and moved to become the CEO within six years. 

In his words,

"...Making this transition was very risky, and it would have been foolish for me to pass up mentorship based solely on the age of my potential mentor. Regardless of age, if a person has more experience than you, you can learn from them. I highly recommend mentorship from someone either younger or older if anyone is ever considering changing career paths. A mentor provides guidance and feedback as you explore a completely new atmosphere, ensuring you have higher self-awareness of yourself and your progress. Being self-aware is key to finding success in your new professional field, and getting a second opinion from someone who wants to see you succeed can only help.

Reverse mentoring helps organizations reap numerous benefits from junior employees to seniors. However, adopt the mentoring style that best suits your current needs. 

Next steps

Today, you can leverage Together's software to build an effective reverse mentoring program. Our excellent software eases the burden of managing a multi-generational workforce.

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