While there has been more discussion about reverse mentoring in recent years, it's been a corporate practice for more than two decades.
It was initially adopted by companies that rely heavily on technologies, with which younger executives are more familiar. With reverse mentoring, more mature senior executives can grow their tech-savviness by touching base with younger employees regularly.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, has been touted as a senior executive who helped spread the practice of reverse mentoring.
He realized that management at GE needed to learn much about the Internet, which started to become a major technology that businesses must understand and make effective use of in the 90s.
Reverse mentoring reached Asia later. In many Asian cultures, age represents wisdom and therefore the need of younger people to learn from older ones instead of the other way round.
While mature executives are equipped with enormous professional experience and domain knowledge, they might still benefit from being mentored by younger people.
“Reverse mentoring is a fascinating strategy, as it ensures that ideas and viewpoints don't just flow from the top down. By expressing a desire to draw on this expertise, company bosses are showing they are receptive and willing to adopt innovative ideas and a different perspective,” said Robert Half.
What mature execs can learn from younger people
Technology wise, mature executives can become more aware of the latest consumer trends—such as how consumers research the market online and guide their buying decisions with online customer reviews rather than marketing campaigns, the recruitment firm noted.
In addition, mature managers can gain a better understanding of what younger people want from their jobs, Robert Half pointed out.
While Gen Xers and generations before them see earning a competitive salary is important, younger people are focused more on job satisfaction and work-life balance, said the recruiter, adding that flexible work opportunities, health insurance plans or subsidized gym membership are also valuable perks for them.
Through being in touch with young executives through reverse mentorship, senior executives are updated about their preferences and more equipped to retain talent, the firm noted.
A stronger intergenerational bond
Reverse mentoring also fosters a strong bond between employees especially those belonging to different generations.
According to Robert Half, this mentoring model helps establish a more open and less hierarchical environment, in which younger employees find it easier to express their views to more senior managers while gaining insights into issues facing senior management.
But how do you make reverse mentoring work?
According to Hays that spoke to various HR experts, companies need to put the followings into practice to make reverse mentoring successful.
Be open to new insights. Hays said Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s reverse mentoring program was developed from a traditional mentoring program because the baby boomer leaders found it beneficial to listen to young people on how they can use technology more effectively and innovatively at work and in communications.
Monthly meetings. According to Hays, PwC has launched a reverse mentoring program in 2014 and has more than 100 millennials mentoring about 200 partners and directors. The mentors meet with their mentees once a month, while mentors meet quarterly to discuss any issues.
Training for mentors. PwC also runs a mentor training program which looks at the dynamics between different generations, what their role will entail and hierarchical boundaries, said Hays, adding that PwC is focused on having the relationship led by the mentor rather than by the more senior executive.
Creating a safe environment for experience sharing. The young mentors should be empowered to challenge senior executives’ views and ways of working, in a safe environment.
Robert Half also offers the following tips to organizations that want to start a reverse mentoring program:
Taking the lead.Proactively engage millennials—who are often nervous to reach out—for their opinions and advice.
Setting an example.Many people dislike the idea of learning from someone less experienced. But by showing initiative, you are setting an example in the business. Consider it a business case, is reverse mentoring going to help create new strategic ideas or improve processes?
Don’t be judgemental.In any reverse mentoring relationship there is always a danger of making incorrect assumptions about people skills and abilities. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised at the knowledge they can provide and what you have in common.
Working out what you want to achieve.A company needs to know specifically what it wants to achieve before starting a reverse mentoring program. Is it an exchange of knowledge in a specific area, or do you want to concentrate on boosting wider skills that can apply across the whole business?
With a tangible goal in mind, you can measure program success in a way that goes beyond the benefits.