Making reverse mentoring work

By Prof David Clutterbuck

Practical guidelines for programmes

Reverse mentoring (or mentoring up) is a practical way to enable senior people in organizations to learn from more junior colleagues. There are two main contexts for this: technical and diversity-focused.

Technical reverse mentoring emerged in the 1990s as a means of helping executives keep up with technological change, particularly in terms of IT literacy. It was sometimes confused with technical support (one-way tuition), but when properly applied is a co-learning partnership, in which the senior person acquires both technical skills and a level of conceptual understanding of the technology, while the junior mentor gains insights into thinking at a more strategic level and into career possibilities.

Diversity-focused reverse mentoring supports co-learning between cultures and generations. Early applications centred around gender – male executives being mentored by more junior females to understand the corporate world through female eyes. The relationship caused the executives to question their assumptions about female aspirations and to recognise the subtle barriers that prevented women advancing in their careers. How much of an influence it had on gender equality in the workplace is hard to measure, but it appears to have had a substantial impact on changing mindsets.

In the past two decades, diversity-focused reverse mentoring has contributed to diversity management in the contexts of race, culture, disability, sexual preference, amongst others. Generational-based reverse mentoring concentrates on building bridges of understanding between the baby boomers/Generation X and millennials.

Good practice guidelines for designing effective reverse mentoring programmes include:

  • Be very clear about the learning agenda for the programme. What are the key understandings each party needs to take away?
  • Clarify why it is important to the business to create these cross-sectional communications. This will contribute to participants’ confidence in playing their respective roles
  • Start at the top. If the leaders show willingness to learn in this way, other managers will follow suit
  • Educate both mentors and mentees in how to manage the power distance issues. If the executive slips into their managerial persona, then this can intimidate the less senior mentor and inhibit the learning between them. Both need the skills to create a power-free learning environment
  • Ensure that there is a significant hierarchical gap between mentor and mentee. The further away from the top the junior person is, the better able they are to manage the power distance – because people closer to the top are more likely to be concerned that giving robust feedback to someone more senior will be detrimental to their careers
  • Monitor how each reverse mentoring relationship is progressing. Both mentor and mentee may benefit from having an additional, traditional coaching or mentoring relationship, in which they can explore issues that arise for them
  • View the upward mentors as a resource for exploring wider issues, where accessing several different perspectives can help make better strategic or tactical choices
  • Bring mentees together as a group to share their learning and the implications for the organization; similarly, encourage junior mentors to exchange insights they have acquired.