Jack Welch pioneered one of the first nontraditional mentoring programs in 1999. The former CEO of General Electric paired 500 top leaders (including himself) with junior associates who taught the leaders how to use the Internet. In return the associates gained greater visibility.
Two decades later, companies are using similar reverse mentoring programs and newer so-called reciprocal mentoring programs to meet a variety of business challenges.
Reverse and reciprocal mentorship programs vary in scale and scope, but they all share a common approach, says Jason Wingard, dean of Columbia University's School of Professional Studies and former chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs. "They coordinate shared learning between colleagues of diverse backgrounds to create symbiotic corporate learning."
In addition, these mentoring programs are part of a broader societal shift from a knowledge economy to a learning economy.
With reciprocal mentoring, all employees regardless of job level, age, gender, ethnicity and so on, take turns being mentors and mentees, and everyone essentially learns something from everyone.
While some organizations have been slow to adopt these nontraditional mentoring programs, others have recognized that all employees—from the most-senior executives to the greenest assistants—have knowledge and life experience worth tapping into.
"Traditional mentoring is built around the concept of a knowledge economy where knowledge flows from the top down," says Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a lecturer in organizational leadership and policy development at the University of Minnesota. "In a learning economy, everyone is a guide because everyone has knowledge to share."
Bridging the Generation Gap
The top two reasons employers want younger workers to mentor senior leaders involve technology and relationships. Primarily, employers want leaders to learn new technologies. "Technology is the most common umbrella," says Chris Browning, president of River Software, a Colorado mentoring software company. In addition, employers want to help senior leaders "get more in touch with younger generations."
When Sachse Construction, a 170-person general contracting firm in Detroit, launched a reverse mentoring program in 2016, the primary goal was to build better relationships between Baby Boomer leaders and junior-level Millennials.
"We are a learning culture," CEO Todd Sachse says. "We are passionate about training and obsessed with learning. We started the program so that employees from different generations can learn from each other."
Each month last year, about a dozen mentoring pairs met offsite. They discussed a variety of predetermined topics, including the impact of technology, work/life balance, generational labels, education versus work experience, motivation and each workers' future with the company.
Candice Susak, the training associate who runs the company's program, was Sachse's first mentor. Among the things she conveyed to him is how Millennials value having a sense of purpose in their work and knowing that the company is making a positive impact in the world.
"The reverse mentoring program reflects one of our company's core values: 'working to excel every day.' That's something I feel passionate about," Susak says.
At the same time, the program has been a valuable professional development tool for her.
"I used to doubt myself a lot," Susak says. "Knowing that the CEO and president have confidence in me to run the program has really helped my confidence. I can see myself being a leader someday."
Reverse mentoring has also been instrumental to recruiting and retaining Millennials at Sachse—no small feat in an industry where many employers struggle to attract and keep younger employees.
Why? Because engagement is a related primary objective of any reverse mentoring program, says Laura Francis, VP of marketing for River Software.
In a learning economy, everyone is a guide because everyone has knowledge to share.'
"When we talk about the benefits of a reverse mentoring program, we usually focus on engagement first, and then retention, because engagement leads to retention," Francis says. "Millennials are quick to jump ship if they don't feel like they're being challenged and recognized."
"Millennials are going to be running the company someday," Sachse says. "If we're not listening to them and learning from them, we're going to lose them."
Building Leadership Capabilities
Experience notwithstanding, many senior executives don't have the skills needed to lead a 21st century workforce shaped by rapidly changing technology and staff demographics. Reverse mentoring programs can help remedy that deficit.
When PwC Consulting in London launched its program in 2014, the top objective was to help leaders become more effective at heading diverse teams.
"We wanted to help partners in our business get a clearer perspective of what it's like for women and employees from different ethnic backgrounds to work in the business and take that into account in their decision making," says Kalee Talvitie-Brown, partner and head of people. "The program makes them better leaders, and that makes for better client engagements."
The program also encourages junior-level mentors to be more proactive and develop their own leadership capabilities.
Kam Dhaliwal, 30, is a mid-level manager at PwC who's currently mentoring a senior leader. Although she was initially nervous about participating, she found that she benefited greatly from the relationship and from the quarterly meetings she attends with other mentors.
Workers Lack Confidence
When mentors and mentees meet, while each conversation may be fluid, it's important for the participants to have an open discussion about their expectations for the relationship.
"With my mentee," Dhaliwal says, "we talked about our different backgrounds―what my experience is like as a woman from a different ethnic background, about well-being, diversity and inclusion, and reverse mentoring."
For him, she said, "it was important to talk about communications, leadership and how to ensure that he has an inclusive leadership style."
That type of education is essential. "Regardless of the topic, the most important element of the discussion is not the information exchange; it's leadership development," says David Smith, co-author with Brad Johnson, Ph.D., of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Routledge, 2016) "Leading the discussion is a learning experience for the junior member on how to organize and present information, as well as how to facilitate dialogue."
When Joe Creed, VP of the finance services division at Caterpillar Inc. in Chicago, was first paired with Meghan Lundeen, an HR manager in global information systems, as part of the company's cross-gender reverse mentoring program, he found the role reversal disconcerting.
"Our discussions sometimes include various challenges she's facing, and my natural inclination as a leader is to flip the script and offer her advice and counsel," Creed wrote in a Caterpillar employee blog post. "But listening and seeking to understand needs to come first, followed by a two-way discussion on how the situation should best be handled."
Ultimately, their conversations offered him unique insights into the daily experience of female Caterpillar employees. It helped him to gain a better understanding of the company's culture and climate, he said, and to become a more perceptive leader.
Yet, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there have been reports that some men are shying away from mentoring women.
"That sets up a false narrative that women are dangerous because they're demanding not to be harassed," says Johnson, coauthor of Athena Rising. "If you're not a predator, you have very little to worry about."
The #MeToo movement actually presents an opportunity for men and women to learn how to work together in a mutually respectful way, says Melinda Weider, director of the Reciprocal Mentoring Lab consulting company in Seattle.
Millennials are going to be running the company someday. If we're not listening to them and learning from them, we're going to lose them.'
The company's program (which is based on Smith and Johnson's research) pairs high-potential female employees with upper-level male executives who are at or slightly above their level in the organization.
"It's a tangible solution to the problem of companies not having enough women in leadership roles," Weider says. "We approach it with a learning lens where men and women learn how to work together as equals."
Smith and Johnson emphasize the importance of using reciprocal mentoring with high-potential female employees because it's more likely to lead to greater gender equality in the workplace.
"There's an easy business case for reciprocal cross-gender mentoring for high-potential women," Johnson says. "It builds leadership skills in both directions. For him, it builds empathy, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. For her, it's an opportunity to gain recognition, visibility, and access to information and networks. It's a way to ensure that high-potential women aren't falling through the cracks."
Diversity and Inclusivity
With more women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities in the workforce, organizations sometimes find it challenging to find ways to make the most of their strengths.
Some corporate programs match employees from these different backgrounds with senior executives who can help them advance in their careers. For employees who feel marginalized, it can be a powerful tool to build trust and loyalty.
The mentoring program at Eli Lilly and Company, a global pharmaceutical corporation headquartered in Indianapolis, was launched in 2015 by the company's LGBT Employee Resource Group. The voluntary program matches LGBT employees with senior leaders in order to influence and educate the leaders about this employee group.
SHRM's Tony Lee is joined by Arlene Hirsch, a recognized expert in career psychology and the proprietor of a Chicago-based career and psychological counseling firm. Tony and Arlene discuss what reverse mentoring is, how reverse mentoring fosters inter-generational connections, reverse mentoring's importance for managing a diverse workforce and reverse mentoring in the #MeToo era.
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Pam Elmore, director of the customer experience learning center, was "pleasantly surprised" to discover that her mentee, Wei Li Shou, was serious about learning and growing from their conversations.
"The trust that he's investing as a leader to try to learn so he can grow and influence and change the culture has really been a huge value to me," she says in an Eli Lilly video on reverse mentoring. And she adds that she finds it affirming that her company cares about the well-being of its LGBT employees.
Shou, the VP of sales and operations for Lilly USA, found their relationship transformative. One of his biggest responsibilities as a leader is to create environments in which people feel that they can succeed.
"This kind of reverse mentoring situation … allows you to really understand [and] get comfortable so you connect with everybody in your organization and then really create that environment where people feel like they can achieve and bring their whole self to work and just be happy with what they do," Shou says.
Employees from diverse backgrounds often bring fresh ideas and perspectives that foster innovation. Because younger workers are generally tech-savvy, some of their most valuable contributions revolve around the use of technology and social media.
Spencer Osborn, worldwide managing director at Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising agency in New York City, credits his Millennial mentors with teaching him how to jazz up his Twitter posts (which had a reputation for being boring) and modernize his music playlists, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In addition to keeping him abreast of trends in the fast-moving business of advertising, Osborn says, the program has helped boost morale and retention at the agency because the junior mentors feel like their voices are being heard.
Romaine Seguin, president of Global Freight Forwarding at UPS, recalled a time when the company was having a hard time training delivery assistants to use tablets, according to Mississauga.com, a Canadian news site. Her Millennial mentor convinced her to eliminate the tablets and train the assistants on cellphones instead. Mentoring can also evolve organically as the result of informal relationships and conversations.
"It doesn't have to be a formal program," Chaudhuri says. "It can be a mindset."
Perhaps one of the greatest advantages to nontraditional mentoring is the way that it can transform a hierarchical culture into a more inclusive and collaborative environment where everyone's input is valued and where everyone can make an impact.
Arlene S. Hirsch is a career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago.