Reverse mentoring: a cross-generational bridge for the workplace

November 15, 2022 | By Safdar Khan

The role mentorships can play in the workplace is nothing new. Senior employees spend time with their junior colleagues, encouraging them to learn, grow and upskill, and helping them not only perform better in their current role but also to progress their career. 

But what happens when the roles are reversed, and a seasoned professional is paired with a younger professional? What you get instead is reverse mentoring. Here the younger employee is able to “mentor” the more seasoned one on new trends, emerging technologies and more.

And it doesn’t end there. Reverse mentoring, and the cross-generational exchange that is taking place, can have much broader, strategic value. In particular, it connects senior leaders with the desires, motivations, and preferences of younger generations – whether employees or customers.

Be it is understanding consumption habits, preferred social channels or the latest cultural obsessions, reverse mentoring can unlock new perspectives and bridge generational gap in a workplace.

The same is true for the mentors themselves. The opportunity to meet, engage with and even influence their more senior and experienced colleagues builds confidence, trust and leadership skills among younger staff. This is hugely beneficial in terms of talent retention and development.

After all, today’s Gen Z and millennial mentors could well be tomorrow’s senior leaders.

Reverse mentoring: A path to success

Done well, reverse mentoring has many benefits. But not all mentoring is done well. Obstacles can get in the way, and it is important that these are tackled effectively.

Here are the key things to pay attention to:

  • Create a good match: Both sides of the reverse mentoring process should be a good fit. To begin, both parties should be interested in taking part – making reverse mentoring a mandatory program can defeat its purpose. Mentors and mentees can then be matched according to areas of expertise and interest. At the same time, the process should ensure a certain diversity of age, location, personality and more. Once a pairing is agreed, both sides should be consulted to ensure they are equally comfortable with the match.

  • Make time: The main reason that reverse mentoring fails is that the senior mentee doesn’t prioritise the meetings. This can result in cancelled sessions and eventually a loss of interest on both sides. Work commitments can understandably get in the way, but it helps to have a formal schedule that both sides can adhere to. It may also be good to have some guidance in place at the start of the process so both mentor and mentee have a clear idea of what is expected from them.

  • Find the right balance: There is no hard and fast rule to where reverse mentoring should take place. Gen Z and millennial employees may prefer to connect over digital channels such as messaging platforms or virtual meetings, while older mentees may put more value on face-to-face engagement. The same is true for timings. A senior executive may favour early morning meetings that can slotted in before the work day officially begins, while a junior employee might prefer later in the day. The key is to find a compromise, so that both sides feel comfortable. It could for example be a monthly or quarterly face-to-face meeting, supplemented by more regular virtual meets.

  • Establish good communication: As in any relationship, bad communication can lead to a breakdown. Skills training can help, particularly for younger mentors who may be relatively new to the corporate environment. Developing effective communications skills such as active listening and constructive feedback can be useful.

  • Encourage senior participation. Some senior leaders may be apprehensive about sharing their lack of knowledge in some areas with junior employees. Others may be nervous about crossing management hierarchies or exposing sensitive information. These concerns should be addressed at the beginning of the process so both sides can go into the relationship feeling open and relaxed.

  • Measure success: Reverse mentoring should not be too formal – it is after all about development rather than performance. But it does help to have some evaluation and success indicators put in place. Feedback from both mentor and mentee is crucial. Knowing what worked, what didn’t work and why, will not only make for a more productive relationship, it will also help the design and management of other mentoring programs within the organization.

  • Let the mentors run with it: Reverse mentoring to some extent puts the junior employees in charge. That’s not a bad thing. Give them the room to grow and use their experience to develop the program and nurture new mentors.

Most of all though, have fun. Reverse mentoring can be a hugely beneficial process for individuals and organizations alike, but it should never feel like yet another meeting to add to an already busy calendar. Keep it enjoyable – something that both mentor and mentee look forward to. And for the senior executives out there, always keep an open mind because you never know what you may learn.

Photo of Safdar Khan
Safdar Khan, Division President, Southeast Asia, Mastercard