two women having a meeting
Leads for leaders: reverse mentors benefit from a new perspective on the business © Getty

While mentoring is all about giving advice to a younger or less experienced colleague, reverse mentoring sees the junior employee taking the lead. It sounds odd, doesn’t it? How much help or advice can they really impart to an organisation’s senior leaders?  

Lots, it turns out. Jack Welch pioneered the practice at US conglomerate General Electric more than 20 years ago, to ensure senior employees became more familiar with the internet.

And, since then, business leaders and academics have been watching with interest as more businesses have adopted the practice. Professional services firms PwC and Linklaters and consumer group Estée Lauder have all run well-documented reverse-mentoring schemes.

The reverse mentors stand to benefit, too — from increased confidence, strong connections with senior leaders and, usually, a different perspective on the business in which they work. It can also be a powerful boost to their visibility.

Why do companies do it? Helpfully, three academics in the US published a review of reverse-mentoring literature last year. They found that companies use it mainly — but not always — to help develop and improve diversity and inclusion. Other objectives include developing leadership and spreading technical expertise.

But, as well as technical knowhow, early-career colleagues can offer valuably different perspectives from senior leaders, who tend to suffer from confirmation bias. Exposed only to the opinions of people who think like them, these executives become convinced they know — and are right about — more or less everything.

Credit management company Lowell (full disclosure: I am a non-executive director on the UK board) launched a reverse-mentoring scheme last year. Designed to improve diversity and inclusion, the initiative paired all the individual members of the executive committee with earlier-career employees, so the executives could get a sense of what life was like at work for a range of people.

The mentors in the scheme were from under-represented groups — for instance, women, those from different ethnic backgrounds, single parents, and people not born in the UK.

Nick Ollard, UK client director at Lowell, was reverse-mentored by Anete Klavina, who was born in Latvia and moved to the UK 11 years ago. The many lessons he learned, he says, included  “understanding how people from a different generation might view certain situations” — and he found this “really helped . . . to put into perspective the decisions you might make”.

What was Klavina’s view of the experience? “Despite all the preparation, it was scary stepping into the first meeting, especially with a man in such a high-powered position,” she recalls, reflecting the understandable apprehension that reverse mentors may feel.

Ultimately, however, it was “a massive confidence booster”, she explains. “The process felt like we were on a journey together exploring our own biases and breaking some of the stereotypes that had [been] shaped in my mind, with me being from a foreign country.” 

Even regular mentoring schemes can now have “reverse elements”. I am a mentor myself on the Help to Grow Scheme, a UK government-backed programme for smaller businesses that Heriot Watt University, where I am executive dean of Edinburgh Business School, is helping to deliver.

As a mentor, I spend 10 hours with each of my mentees over a number of weeks, and it is not all one-way. One mentee is in retail, another in wealth management, and both share with me helpful suggestions — for instance, how they go about hiring people in a tight labour market.

Another example of this is MoneySuperMarket’s mentoring scheme, which pairs under-represented workers with senior leaders across the group. Hannah-Rose Williams, learning and development specialist at the price comparison website, says the scheme has yielded reverse-mentoring benefits even though it was not explicitly designed to do so.

“The most prevalent ways mentors have experienced reverse mentorship . . . has been through insight into the barriers faced by less experienced and under-represented colleagues,” Williams says, citing such challenges as a lack of visibility in the organisation and low confidence. As a result, the mentors say they want to do more to remedy such issues in their own business areas.  

I am leaving Edinburgh for Dubai in September, to be the provost of our campus there. Moving to a totally new part of the world means I am now definitely planning to seek a reverse mentor, ideally an Emirati “woman at the start” who works outside higher education.

Any volunteers?

How companies can ensure reverse-mentoring success

Alison Leslie, responsible for diversity and inclusion at Lowell Group,  designed and ran its reverse-mentoring scheme. She suggests the following tips for companies:

  • Invest time in building your group of mentors, and letting them meet each other during their training, so they can air their concerns.

  • Preparation is vital, and mentees need training, too. Make sure everyone understands that conversations may initially be awkward, even uncomfortable.

  • Keep the details of who is mentoring whom private. Do you really want everyone to know who is reverse mentoring the chief executive?

  • Set clear guidelines. The Lowell scheme involved a “virtual coffee” on a video call, followed by a face-to-face meeting. Then, it was up to the mentor/mentee to agree if they wanted to continue, and the scheme had a closing date. Confidentiality was assured at all times.

  • Getting the right match is essential. Jennifer Jordon and Michael Sorrell, two academics at IMD business school, who have conducted research into reverse mentoring, make this point too: check with mentees before making any pairing final.

The writer is executive dean of Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, and author of ‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’

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