Reverse mentoring: and how it’s driving the workplace forward
- How role reversals move leadership forward
- Benefits of reverse mentoring:
- Improving Retention
- Promotion of Workplace Diversity
- Delivering Strategic Insights
Have you ever been asked to walk in someone else's shoes?
It's meant figuratively, right?
But what if it wasn't: what if we took it literally? In 1887 Beatrice Webb did.
Swapping the leather boots and comfortable clothes that befitted a woman of her class for buttonless shoes and a frayed shawl, she disguised herself as an impoverished needlewoman and worked in the garment factories of London's East End. Walking in the shoes of the working classes, her mission was to understand their lives better.
Her observations led Webb to conclude that chronic poverty was not (as some believed) a deserved state, nor was it simply unfortunate. She saw it was structural - and must be tackled with a structural, societal solution.
So she created one.
Webb drafted the initial vision of Britain's Welfare State, a blueprint of its National Health Service and co-founded the London School of Economics.
Walking a literal mile in someone else's shoes had a profound impact on social equality in the UK for the following hundred years.
The lesson? Experience amplifies empathy - and moves compassion into action. And can change the world.
Reverse mentoring's power lies in shoe-swapping, similar to Webb's. It intentionally disrupts traditional mentoring hierarchies and models by inviting the more experienced, the senior, the elder to learn from someone else.
What happens when this type of mentoring is actioned? What is the impact on organisations and people, when the mentor becomes the mentee?
Role Reversals Move Leadership Forward
In the late 1990s, former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, realised that his senior execs needed skilling up - and fast. The internet had arrived, and they didn't know what to do with it. But their employees did. He's credited with pioneering the concept of company-wide reverse mentoring, signing up 500 of his brightest young employees to teach his most senior.
The shift in narrative from the 'all-powerful' C-Suite in the act of 'tipping the organisation upside down', as Welch himself put it, is the mark of a progressive organisation.
And as more organisations move away from leadership marked by authority, status or control, more opportunities are created to flip the hierarchy - delivering benefits for the mentor and mentee and powerful results across the whole business.
Done best, it can foster employee engagement and retention, a sense of inclusion and influence - and as a result, impact productivity and profit and deliver a keener competitive advantage.
Because this mentoring at 180 degrees is more than just teaching folk about new tech. Yes, Industry 4.0 requires agility in teams' skill sets, but reverse mentoring's impact can be more profound.
The workplace is more diverse than ever - most CEOs are in their fifties, and a large organisation could encompass five generations, not to mention multiple viewpoints regarding race, identity, disability and religion.
An admittance of knowledge or skill gaps, of cultural and experiential blindspots in an individual's or an organisation's cultural awareness, sees leaders dodge the trap of experiential omniscience: just because you've been around a long time doesn't mean you know it all.
Hearing others' perspectives and walking in their shoes puts people, and their shared and multifaceted humanity, at the centre of the workplace.
What do the following companies have in common?
- Ernst & Young
- Estee Lauder
- General Electric
- Johnson & Johnson
- Proctor and Gamble
You got it - they all have a formal reverse mentoring programme. Let's look at the wins this form of employee development programme can deliver.
- Improved Retention
People like to be heard. They need to be heard. Or they leave.
This is particularly true for millennials. Even before the Great Resignation instigated by the pandemic, Deloitte research in 2018 put the predicted turnover rate for the demographic in the following two years at an eye-watering 43%.
Yet it seems that reverse mentoring can reverse this trend. After financial services company BNY-Mellon|Pershing began using millennial mentors, the retention rate in the 77-strong group was 96%.
A reverse mentoring programme can ensure that tomorrow's leaders are heard and included in decision-making processes - making them feel valued and recognised for their insights.
As Forbes puts it: "In addition to flexible environments and socially responsible missions, this generation demands continuous learning and transferable skill development, personal fulfilment, and clear opportunities for career advancement—needs that reverse mentoring support."
And retention is as much of a diversity issue as it is generational.
According to a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) study, 60% of companies report that they have an EDI strategy. Yet that same report found that those efforts and unprecedented investments are not working. And it's not recruitment - diverse teams get in the door. They just don't stick around.
This is obvious when you look at stats from the C-Suite. Even in 2022, only 38 percent of Fortune 500 board seats were held by women or people of colour: and there were only six black CEOs.
What are the most commonly cited reasons employees from underrepresented backgrounds give on why they had ever left or wanted to leave a role (in tech)?
- No sense of belonging (27%)
- Biased treatment from managers (22%)
Research shows diverse teams are more productive and engaged, but the retention struggle is real.
One of the top ten effective retention strategies according to CIO? Across all demographics, it’s to foster engagement - and to do so through hearing employees' voices.
If your company culture is counter to your EDI campaigns - or there's a bias that's invisible to your management - a reverse mentoring programme can expose it… and you can take steps to resolve it.
- Promotion of Workplace Diversity
How can you solve a problem you can't see?
One of the most powerful consequences of reverse mentoring is to appreciate how different the lens through which we see the world is for people with experiences other than our own.
If elder, younger, disabled, neurodiverse, LGBTQ+ employees mentored a senior leader or manager, the process could offer profound insights into that organisation and its systems and processes.
Case in point: Proctor and Gamble. When senior leaders were matched to employees with disabilities for reverse mentoring, they realised their internal videos were inaccessible for those with hearing challenges, so they added captions.
Virgin Atlantic's company-wide programme began with a request from the airline's former CEO, Craig Kreeger. He asked Patrice Gordon - a black female junior - to mentor him as he knew he had no one representing a voice like hers on his board. He realised he had a blind spot and wanted to avoid the unconscious bias it could lead to.
- Delivering Strategic Insights
Innovation comes from alternate insights and ideas - and reverse mentoring can empower employees to express theirs. Creating a culture of innovation opens up opportunities for embracing new tech and digital transformation, being alert to new trends and being as agile as organisations evolve in Industry 4.0.
As Estée Lauder's CEO, Fabrizio Freda, realised that innovation was in the company, not outside it. Before establishing the company's own reverse mentoring programme in 2015, he stated that the brand: "had come to a place where the future could not be informed by the past".
The beauty brand's goal was to ensure that leaders stay attuned to the cultural touchpoints of younger customers - whom the younger employees are potentially closer to in mindset. In 2021 Estee Lauder had 600 leader/mentees worldwide - and listening to the voices of young execs remains vital in driving innovation at the company.
Reverse mentoring cultivates empathy but also knowledge on various topics of strategic relevance. To paraphrase Patrice Gordon, it creates better leaders and more progressive and inclusive organisations. We'd argue that this intentional act of seeking to understand someone else can also create a better world. (For more on Patrice’s insights, we recommend her book: ‘Reverse Mentoring: Removing Barriers and Building Belonging in the Workplace’.)
Reverse mentoring is just one of the employee mentoring programmes we consider part of 934 Talent's coaching strategies. We relish bringing together diverse people and ideas - using their comparative, contrasting and complementary strengths to help them flourish personally - and the organisations they serve achieve greatness.
Have you been a reverse mentor or coach? What were your learnings in the process?
Would you like to experience Reverse Mentoring or become a Reverse Mentor? Message us for more details on the opportunities to do so with 934 Talent.