Turning Mentoring on its Head

During the pandemic, we saw a huge rise in Reciprocal Mentoring – where traditional mentoring pairs flipped roles and mentors discovered they were receiving mentorship from their mentees.

But how does Reciprocal Mentoring work and how does this differ from Reverse Mentoring? And why are we seeing demand increase for these?

In Reciprocal mentoring, sometimes known as “co–mentoring”, two people work together through a mentoring process in which they both take on the roles of Mentor and Mentee. This could be done by each participating in both roles, or by each person taking a primary role as Mentor or Mentee, but being willing to exchange roles from time to time.

Also known as “upward mentoring”, Reverse mentoring turns the traditional hierarchical approach to mentoring completely on its head. Rather than having a senior player take a less experienced player “under their wing”, reverse mentoring relationships place the more senior person as the primary learner and emphasise the experience of the junior person.

Reverse mentoring is generally credited to Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, who in 1999 asked 500 of his top managers to each find a young employee to teach them about the internet. Adopted by some organisations as a means to spread the expertise and tech savvy of younger workers, reverse mentoring is said to foster improved intergenerational relationships, enhance diversity initiatives, drive innovation and engage millennials.

In our research into intergenerational mentoring, there was more widespread interest in and acceptance of Reciprocal Mentoring than Reverse mentoring. Senior executive mentees can struggle with the need to give up control to their more junior mentors and demonstrate willingness to learn. Junior mentors can be intimidated by their more experienced mentees and can have difficulty with the nuanced skills of mentoring someone older and more senior.

Co-mentoring avoids some of these potential challenges by allowing the relationship to develop and flourish first, before the junior person takes on the role of mentor. The more senior person can role-model the skills of mentoring first, encouraging the junior person to step into the role when ready. From here, it becomes a mutual learning experience where juniors get to hone their leadership and interpersonal skills, be heard on issues important to their generation and expand their network into upper organisational levels. The seniors gain greater understanding of issues at lower organisational levels, gain new knowledge and learn new skills.

Reverse mentoring cases tend to divide into four overlapping categories, revolving around:

Technology and knowledge transfer. Ogilvy & Mather managing director Spencer Osborn told the Wall Street Journal that his junior mentors have taught him how to jazz up his Twitter posts, which had a reputation for being “very boring”.

Intergenerational understanding gaps. Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company, is quoted as saying that reverse mentoring is: “a situation where the old fogies in an organisation realise that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way the young twenty-something’s are. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”.

Retention of young employees. Investment banking firm BNY Mellon used Reverse mentoring to increase retention of millennial employees and share digital skills.

Diversity awareness. A higher turnover amongst women in junior and middle management posts was one of the key triggers for the Mentoring Up program introduced in P&G’s marketing division in the US some years ago. Reuters opted for a reverse mentoring programme because it was disappointed with the impact of diversity awareness training.

So, why the increased interest in Reverse and Reciprocal Mentoring in the 2020’s? Our European partners have observed the same trend. My theory is that there are two drivers:

1) COVID-19 sparked greater interest in mentoring in general, as organisations looked to keep their people connected and supported in meaningful relationships. Traditional mentoring has morphed into reciprocal partnerships organically, as both parties have sought the mutual support to help them make sense of and survive in a rapidly changing and uncertain climate. Post-pandemic talent scarcity has also driven companies to use mentoring to increase engagement and retention.

2) Organisations are looking for ways to turbo-charge leadership and diversity initiatives. Reverse mentoring has been associated with good outcomes for both, and, like all mentoring programs, Reverse mentoring programs are surprisingly cost-effective.

© Melissa Richardson