Diversity and Inclusion

Reverse Mentoring: A toolkit for diversity and inclusion initiatives

Reverse mentorship became popular in the 1990s as a way to keep executives informed on technology changes and the internet. Now, however, reverse mentoring is taking on a new purpose: to support diversity and inclusion initiatives. This article will give you a toolkit for introducing reverse mentoring programs into your company's D&I strategy.

Ryan Carruthers

Published on 

December 1, 2021

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Diversity and inclusivity are not simply nice-to-haves in your organization. They can be vital to your longevity and success. Research has found that companies with a gender-diverse leadership team are 25 percent more likely to earn above-average profits. Organizations that have an ethnically diverse executive are 36 percent more likely to see stronger than average revenue. 

Yet, many companies struggle with finding the right path and tools to advance diversity and inclusivity initiatives. What organizations need is reverse mentorship.

The idea of reverse mentorship in the workplace started with Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. The story goes that in the late 1990s, he recognized he lacked the tech skills to keep up with a changing world. And he acknowledged that younger employees were far more knowledgeable about the new technologies than their managers. So, he encouraged 500 of his top leaders to team up with a mentor who was younger and newer to the company.

The benefits of reverse mentoring go beyond learning new technologies. It can be a catalyst for change in workplace culture. 

Why is reverse mentoring important for diversity and inclusion initiatives?

A reverse mentoring experience can open up participants to different perspectives. It helps cultivate a culture of understanding among employees who come from diverse backgrounds. 

Reverse mentoring for diversity and inclusion can become a change agent for the organization. A Harvard Business Review study found that mentoring programs focused on specific identity groups had positive results. Researchers determined there was:

  • An 18 percent increase in leadership positions for African-American women,
  • A 23.7 percent increase in leadership opportunities for Hispanic women and
  • A 24 percent increase for Asian women. 

Pairing a senior employee with a junior one from a diverse background gives the senior executive a better understanding of the issues and challenges minorities face in the workplace.

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.

Echoing Michelle, Kisha Velazquez, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Compt shares the impact of having a mentor on her career:

"I don't think I would have lasted as long as I did at my first job if it had not been for my assigned mentor. When I was struggling with the feeling of not fitting in at work, she provided the safety to express my concerns and challenges that I didn't always feel I had during one-on-ones with my direct manager."

Equipped with this knowledge, the senior employee can more effectively advocate for change in the company. 

Other reasons to run a reverse mentorship program

  1. Connecting different generations in the workforce (boomers, millennials, Gen Z). Reverse mentoring programs don’t need to focus exclusively on racial or gender diversity. Instead, they can also be used to build understanding between employees from different generations. 
  2. Leadership development. Developing strong leaders from within the company is a great reason to run a reverse mentoring program. It can help minorities build their skills and abilities, preparing them to take on more significant roles in the company. This is particularly important for employees who may otherwise have been overlooked for advancement. 
  3. Communication improvement. Reverse mentorships allow employees to cultivate their communication skills. Being willing and able to discuss complex issues, like diversity or inclusion, will create a stronger workplace culture. 

Reverse mentoring vs sponsorship

Reverse mentoring is not the same as sponsorship. While they are both professional relationships developed for career advancement, there are some significant differences. 

Sponsorship is focused on preparing employees for promotions or leadership opportunities. In these relationships, the senior employee becomes an active advocate to help the diverse employee gain access to job opportunities. 

In comparison, reverse mentoring is about helping senior employees develop an understanding of new perspectives from employees different from themselves. 

Topics to cover in a reverse mentorship program 

Developing a reverse mentoring program can be a significant advantage to your organization and a boon to your employees. As you begin to build your program, here are some of the key topics that will need to be addressed. 

  • Discuss if there’s a balanced leadership team and how to change it if it isn’t. Compare the diversity of your executives and ask whether it is representative of the society and culture you live and work in. 
  • Ideas for increasing belonging in your workplace. Are employees able to build connections with each other? Does your organization have a way for employees to get to know each other better?
  • Diversity challenges in the workplaces. Many organizations need to work at creating a more diverse and inclusive culture. Consider your company’s specific challenges, whether they are communication challenges, biases, resistance to change, or even a need for more employee resource groups. 
  • How to include more perspectives in decision-making processes in your organization. Successful companies need to consider the broader society they exist in and be reflective of the various cultures. Consider what your organization can do to add more perspectives to the decision-making process. 
  • What employees from diverse backgrounds want from their leaders. Discuss with employees what they need and want from higher-ups, so you are able to create a reverse mentoring program that better helps them. 
  • Discuss starting an employee resource group and why that’s important. Employee resource groups provide a space for employees from different backgrounds to find support, resources, and growth opportunities. They can also be the best agents for positive change in your company.


A toolkit for structuring reverse mentoring relationships

Here are the steps to building successful reverse mentoring relationships, based on a TEDtalk by Patrice Gordon. She drew on her experience as a mentor to Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Craig Kreeger. 

Show interest

In a reverse mentoring relationship, the mentee, or the senior leader, needs to be genuinely interested in what their mentor, the employee, has to teach them.  This is essential for any successful interaction. If the mentor is not interested in gaining anything from the experience, it just won’t work.  

Create a match thoughtfully

You need to make a match thoughtfully. Chemistry matters, so be sure to pick two people who get along well or have something in common they can build on. The main reason for running a reverse mentoring program is to expose leaders to diverse perspectives, but that doesn't mean that pairings should have nothing in common. Perhaps they have a similar drive or communication style. Finding the balance is key. It’s also vital that the mentor is not a direct report of the mentee, as that can muddy the waters with a conflict of interest.

Agree on ground rules

Begin by setting some ground rules. The mentee will be responsible for setting the agenda. Agree upfront that the conversations will be confidential. You should also be clear about what is not to be discussed, such as the personal and private lives of participants. 

Break the ice

Encourage the mentor and mentee to start with an ice breaker. Share who you are and your career experiences. Search for similarities, not differences. That’s where reverse mentoring can be most potent. 

Don’t switch roles

Beware of role reversion. Sometimes the mentee may be tempted to slip into a leadership role, but don’t let the leader give career advice. The leader is there to learn. Not teach.

Remember to reflect 

During the mentorship experience, make time for reflection. Sit and write a list of important takeaways after meetings, whether through email or at the end of the session. 

Share successes and give credit

Finally, give credit where it’s due. In a traditional mentoring experience, you don’t need to offer credit. But, with a reverse mentoring experience focused on inclusion, you need to recognize feedback or ideas that will be used in future DEI initiatives or programs.

Start your reverse mentoring program

Starting a diverse mentoring program comes with a myriad of benefits for your organization and your employees. Boost your diversity and inclusivity initiatives by empowering employees to develop their skills, build their network, and improve your leadership succession. You can opt to have both a reverse mentoring and a general mentorship program at the same time. However, managing it all can be an administrative challenge without the right tools. That’s why Together’s mentoring platform exists. 

Our mentoring software can help you build a program designed around your objectives and streamlined for optimal efficiency and success. 

Chat with us about how Together can help you get the most from your reverse mentoring program.

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