The exec team member paused thoughtfully during a board meeting as the group got to grips with a thorny issue regarding some customer feedback on a recent product launch. “I’m going to talk to my reverse-mentor about this when we meet tomorrow”, he declared.
Reverse-mentoring is an increasingly popular intervention in workplaces, often introduced to support the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategy. At their best, such initiatives allow senior executives, the mentees, to gain valuable different perspectives from a reverse-mentor who is often representative of one or more ‘minority’ groups within the organisation. Mentoring discussion topics can include an exploration of real-time business issues; the sharing of lived cultural experiences at work; and the exchange of points of view about how create a more inclusive environment and attract & retain more diverse talent.
Done well, these programmes create rich insights and greater understanding on both sides. Senior leaders gain a better understanding of how the organisational culture impacts on people from diverse backgrounds The two parties learn from each other and agree actions they can implement on a personal level as well as for the business.
Bringing senior executives together with a more junior reverse-mentor is not without its challenges, however. According to Harvard Business Review, without training only one third of mentor-mentee relationships succeed. Here are some common pitfalls, together with steps you can take to ensure they are mitigated in your reverse-mentoring programme.
1. Senior execs fail to prioritise the reverse-mentoring relationship. Before long, slots are cancelled and the momentum is lost. It is important that roles and responsibilities around who will drive the sessions are agreed up front. Executive mentees also need to be clear about what they want to achieve personally from the programme.
2. Both parties are worried about saying the ‘wrong thing’, which in turn can prevent them from being vulnerable enough to learn for themselves and may stop them from addressing the real ‘issues’. Psychological safety, an environment where both parties can say what is on their mind, and challenge the status quo, without fear of judgement or reprisal, needs to be created effectively between the two participants. It’s not always obvious to participants how they can do that.
3. Reverse-mentors are nervous about the dynamics and feel ill-equipped to take the lead as mentors. Reverse-mentors need support to set personal goals for themselves, discover how to structure mentoring sessions and learn what discussion topics are appropriate.
4. Over the course of the programme discussion topics dry up and it turns into a ‘cosy chat’. This is mitigated when each party is clear about what they want to achieve on a personal and organisational level. It can also be helpful to agree on broad topics so participants have a road map for the duration of the programme.
5. Often a corollary of point 4, roles revert to a traditional mentoring relationship where the more senior party provides advice and tips on topics such as career progression. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this dynamic being a part of the programme, the focus should mainly be about the reverse-mentor mentoring the exec member, and it is important that a suitable balance is maintained.
The value and benefits of reverse-mentoring include promotion of diversity, increased retention in groups such as Millennials, sharing of skills and driving cultural change. Being aware of the common pitfalls and implementing training & support to mitigate the effects can help ensure the success of your programme.
Inclusive Group offers a training package to support reverse-mentors and mentees to create the conditions for fruitful mentoring relationships. Contact us for further details.