As more millennials join the workforce, reverse mentoring is growing as a developmental practice. It’s also helpful as more baby boomers stick around past traditional retirement age. Large organizations have made it a tool in their learning repertoire. For instance, at Dell, 19 percent of people in the company mentoring program engaged in reverse mentoring in 2010.
As these generations turn traditional mentoring on its head, learning leaders must pay attention to how organizational power and hierarchy impact relationships. The adviser in reverse mentoring likely will wield less power and authority than the learner, and may even take direction from the learner. Conversely, the learner will have to take more responsibility for engagement outcomes.
At first this nontraditional mentoring dynamic can cause problems, such as poor communication, vague understanding of the relationship’s purpose and fear of reprisal for actions taken during mentoring. The following three tips can help counter these potential roadblocks and build a collaborative reverse mentoring relationship.
Focus on learning. The relationship should not be about power; it should center on learning. This might be difficult at first, since the learner is higher in the organizational hierarchy, but it can help to determine goals for the relationship and use them as a guide. Learners should express their desired outcomes, and advisers should discuss the extent to which they feel capable of contributing to those goals. Both parties need to be in accord on the general goals and direction for the relationship, adjusting them as necessary.
Share responsibility. Mentoring is intended to be collaborative, with both parties having input on topics for exploration. The adviser needs to have permission to be more directive at times as the acknowledged thought leader in the relationship. If the learner is a senior leader, this permission needs to be explicit so the adviser feels safe speaking honestly. Learners also need to take responsibility for their own progress and commit themselves to the mentoring engagement.
Practice respect and empathy. Trust is a cornerstone of all mentoring relationships, yet it will only develop if conversations are confidential. Both parties must talk about the political realities that surround the relationship and determine the level of confidentiality they want for their engagement. This shows that both learner and adviser hold one another in high esteem and value the relationship. To show this in practice, people should contemplate how their mentoring partner’s positional power affects them before making a request, offering a possible solution or processing a critical issue. Even if the relationship is about learning a new skill, offhand comments need to be handled with care.
Reverse mentoring can be beneficial and provide valuable learning opportunities for all involved. As with all mentoring, commitment, respect, honest communication and specific learning goals are key for success.
Randy Emelo is president and CEO of Triple Creek, an enterprise mentoring systems provider. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.