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Reverse Mentoring and Its Strategic Relevance in 2020

two people in business attire walking down an outdoor corridor having casual conversation

Digital transformation poses a twin challenge. On one hand, it pressures employees to update their skills to avoid becoming redundant. On the other, it requires companies to retain their skilled employees and reduce attrition.

The intensifying competition for the best and brightest in a finite talent pool is compelling organizations to turn to alternate methods to lower churn, and simultaneously produce home-grown talent. One such method? Reverse mentoring.  

Reverse mentoring flips the script on the traditional senior-to-junior approach to mentorship. It posits that leadership in organizations need not always be top-down, but can even be junior-to-senior or outside-in.

The strategic relevance of reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring not only encourages more meaningful transfers of knowledge but also facilitates better intergenerational and intercommunity relationships, communication, and respect for each other’s skills, experiences, and opinions.

By pairing senior managers with younger executives, reverse mentoring creates a safe space for the exchange of ideas. It gives the senior participants an opportunity to adapt to the culture of a younger workforce, acquire digital skills, and gain fresh perspectives; while the juniors get a ring-side view of experienced leaders at work. 

The recognition and opportunity to network are not insubstantial perks either.

A methodical approach to reverse mentoring can be the solution to several organizational pain points such as succession planning, designing career paths, understanding a new generation of consumers, and building innovative business models.

Reverse mentoring as a unifier

At a time when new tools, methodologies, and changing beliefs are altering your workforce’s attitudes towards work, it is imperative to set up a bi-directional learning system that brings individuals together from across the corporate and social spectrum.

The gestalt of reverse mentoring is an organizational culture that allows all communities to thrive. By engineering a diverse workplace where unique behaviors, practices, and policies are respected, reverse mentoring places the welfare of employees, customers, stakeholders, and the community base front and center.

This model of learning ushers in a cultural transformation in the organization. It tears down intergenerational and intercommunity barriers by helping both experienced leaders and young achievers find common ground and goals. Along the way, it inevitably starts difficult conversations on inclusivity and trust.

Although debiasing need not be the ultimate goal of reverse mentoring, the very act of pairing people from different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds can go a long way in reducing inherent biases and raising much-needed awareness about exclusion, discrimination, and othering.

Doing it right

The trickiest part about reverse mentoring is the power dynamics between the mentors and mentees. If the pairing isn't right, the juniors might perceive the seniors as patronizing. Not to mention, they may feel unfairly judged and criticized, which can place a heavy emotional and mental burden on both parties and lead to friction in future interactions.

The elimination of bias and building of trust has to be an organic process. Organizations can avoid unexpected situations simply by making sure that participation is voluntary and that participants are open to new experiences and divergent outlooks.

The ideal way to approach reverse mentoring is with caution. The numerous ethical issues surrounding diversity and inclusion requires participants to tread carefully and gauge each other's comfort and awareness levels before attempting to form deeper symbiotic relations.

In summary… 

Breaking down intergenerational and intercommunity barriers builds trust and all-round learning. In young economies, these soft benefits are gold.

Reverse mentoring creates an open environment and levels the playing field for everyone. Beyond mentoring, it creates a fairer society by:

  • Equipping the participants to be effective change agents in their departments/communities
  • Redefining learning by breaking stereotypes
  • Broadening horizons by acquainting participants with each other’s culture
  • Sensitizing participants and improving their cultural competency

Although metrics may measure the outcomes of reverse mentoring, they do not fully convey the extent of the shift in thinking and behaviors of its communities. By weaving diversity into its framework, reverse mentoring makes inclusion easier to achieve.

Nurturing a culture of knowledge-sharing across roles, generations, and societal levels can have a strong bearing on teamwork within the organization. It allows participants to communicate and challenge assumptions, celebrate differences, step outside comfort zones, and understand the lived experiences of others.

 

Kiran Shankar is President of RRD Global Outsourcing.