The Two-Way Street of Mentorship
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Last week, I attended a webinar put on by InEight on mentorship. Specifically, it was "How Mentoring Benefits Women in Construction." I've been very fortunate over my career to serve as a mentor to other professionals, and to be mentored by some incredible individuals. But this webinar introduced me to a concept I haven't heard named before: reverse mentorship.
Reverse mentorship is a partnership between two employees wherein the more junior employee acts as a mentor to an employee more senior, and the result is mutually beneficial. Maybe an employee who has been at the organization is paired with someone who has been there for 15+ years, or a millennial employee is paired with a baby boomer. In these scenarios, the more senior employee is learning new skills and/or seeking out a new, fresh perspective from the junior employee. It encourages relationships that bypass seniority and hierarchy, and promotes the exchange of knowledge and skills.
GE's CEO Jack Welch is credited with being the first to implement reverse mentorship in the late 90s, when he encouraged his senior management employees to seek out younger employees to learn more about this new, big thing called the "internet." And even today, digital and tech skills are very common subjects in reverse mentorship setups.
But there's a whole wealth of knowledge and value to be gained in a reverse mentorship, not just computer skills. For example:
Valuable cultural knowledge.
Process improvement can be examined with fresh eyes.
Further cultivation of diversity through the engagement of new voices.
Companies that encourage reverse mentor relationships have seen great benefits to their organizational health. A successful two-way street approach to mentorship livens up the senior employee's skillset while encouraging the junior employee's career growth. Harmful generational stereotypes are broken down, creating a multi-generational workforce with more diverse ideas. They also see a higher retention rate among their millennial workers, as relationships like this help emerging employees feel recognized, valued, and confident. And with more diverse perspectives coming to the table, innovation thrives with new ideas, and the organization moves toward a positive culture change as a result.
An ideal reverse mentor relationship should have the following things:
An symbiotic exchange of skills or ideas.
Clear goals. Set expectations about what skills you each want to learn from the other, and be consistent how often you meet.
Commitment from both parties. If one partner is less invested than the other, then nothing is gained and the snubbed partner may feel let down.
Respect and open-mindedness. Be wary of implicit bias. Listen actively and patiently, and always remain respectful.
This is a great setup that can revitalize the leadership team while also boosting retention of younger employees. Seek out someone, even if - especially if - that someone is "lower" on the hierarchy than you are, who can complement the knowledge that you already possess, and ask them to partner with you!