What are reverse mentoring schemes, and how do they work?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 13 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Traditional mentorship programmes involve a junior employee receiving guidance and support from a more experienced member of the company. Reverse mentoring is the opposite of this since it's a process that sees a senior staff partner with a junior staff member to learn new skills from those early in their career. It acts as a way for the mentor to impart innovative knowledge about new technology and non-traditional working practices. In this article, we explain what a reverse mentorship programme is and what the benefits are for a company.

What is a reverse mentoring programme?

Just because someone reaches a senior position at a company doesn't necessarily mean that their knowledge of the industry is complete. A reverse mentoring partnership is one way to fill these possible knowledge gaps. This could focus on technology, new business practices or corporate initiatives around equality and diversity. Although the point of these programmes is to help senior staff understand more about the changing dynamics of a workplace, they can be beneficial for all involved.

The benefits of a reverse mentorship programme

If a company implements this type of programme, it can have benefits for the individuals and for the company. There are several key benefits:

Encouraging relationships between different generations

The scheme's purpose is to fill knowledge gaps, which can work in both directions. Alongside helping senior staff stay in touch with what is happening on the ground, it can also foster meaningful work relationships between staff employed at different levels in the organisation. Beyond regular meetings, this can be the foundation of meaningful long-term contact between mentors and mentees.

Improving retention of junior and early career staff

Junior staff who take part in reverse mentoring schemes have the chance to engage with senior members to share their ideas and increase their exposure to the company's management team. This can be a useful way of helping them feel engaged and valued by the business.

Related: Questions to ask your mentor (with examples and explanations)

Helping accelerate organisational change programmes

Any cross-cutting activity that brings people from different parts of the organisation together is generally a useful way to share ideas, and this programme is no exception. If an organisation wants to initiate a particular organisational change, the mentors and mentees can discuss what it would mean for the wider workforce. Communication about organisational changes can be difficult if it's coming from the company's owners or managers. This environment provides a way for senior staff to discuss policy changes and understand the impact on the workforce from a different perspective.

For example, if company bosses want to reduce the overtime allowances the company offers, this could have a real impact on junior staff that may not be immediately apparent in boardroom discussions. If the goal of a reverse mentoring relationship is to facilitate organisational change, they could provide a forum for junior members to exchange ideas on this kind of policy to help foster a better sense of understanding.

Related: The importance of good communication in organisations

Encouraging understanding of diversity programmes

Reverse mentoring is one way for junior employees who are proactive members of diversity networks to educate senior members about the work these networks do. While some senior staff may automatically be very receptive to these ideas, those who have spent most of their careers in working environments that lack diversity may benefit from exposure to these ideas.

For example, a senior member of staff who is not aware of diversity networks that support people with disabilities may learn about it during a reverse mentoring session. They can learn about the great work the network does and the benefits of building a diverse and inclusive workforce. This senior level of support can help the network expand and enjoy greater visibility among senior leadership.

The disadvantages of a reverse mentorship programme

When implemented effectively, a reverse mentoring programme has a lot to offer participants and can bring many benefits to the wider organisation. But there are some issues to consider that could be problematic if the scheme organisers do not handle them appropriately:

Reverse mentorship programmes take time

For it to be effective, it's important the mentor and mentee in a reverse mentoring relationship meet every couple of weeks as a minimum. This is a significant time commitment, which can feel challenging for senior staff with busy diaries. Without an appropriate time commitment, the relationship may not have the chance to thrive, nor the participants see the benefits. Members should be aware of the time commitment needed and be willing to agree to this before they sign up for the scheme.

Organisations may have issues finding the right balance of people

To be successful, both the senior and junior staff typically express interest in the program. It's normal for a scheme to be over-subscribed and for the organisers to utilise selection criteria to choose the final participants. But to work properly, the scheme requires enough applicants that want to be both mentors and mentees. If no one adequately promotes or explains the scheme, it may not build enough momentum or attract the interest of senior staff.

The scheme may not reach its full potential if only a small proportion of senior staff wants to take part. To find a balance, you can widely promote the scheme among senior staff, and make the full benefits clear. For example, this could be part of a wider human resources (HR) training programme for senior staff to encourage engagement.

Related: Types of employee training programmes (with benefits)

What are the stages of a reverse mentoring scheme?

An organisation typically invests time and effort into establishing a successful reverse mentorship programme, and doing so can reap significant rewards. These are the aspects the organisers can consider:

What is the overarching objective of the programme?

Organisations may have a number of reasons they want to set up this kind of scheme. Some reasons include helping senior staff stay in touch with employees on the ground, improving digital skills among the organisation's leaders and building relationships between staff at all levels. It's important that this is clear from the outset, so participants know what they are agreeing to.

Setting the boundaries and expectations

Although a reverse mentoring scheme works best when the relationships thrive and flourish organically, participants are likely to want some sort of structure, at least at first. An organisation can suggest how often the pair are to meet up and provide some ideas to kick off discussions. Before signing up, it's important that participants understand the time commitment and how many sessions they are committing to.

Advertising, recruiting and matching participants

You can publicise the scheme throughout the organisation to maximise its exposure. It's important that people from a diverse range of roles and backgrounds feel comfortable applying. Participants may provide some details about their roles, strengths and weaknesses and why the scheme interests them. You may produce selection criteria if you expect the scheme to be over-subscribed. Once a pool of participants has applied, match the pairs based on their interests and what they are aiming to get out of the reverse mentoring.

Encouraging pairs to set goals together

This kind of relationship works best when both participants are clear about what they want to achieve. The best way to meet their mutual goals is for them to have a unified expectation of how the mentoring works and how they can both contribute. These goals and objectives might evolve, in which case the participants may revisit them to keep them up to date.

Measuring success and reflecting on the programme

A programme generally runs for a set length of time, with the aim being that the relationship may continue after the formal scheme has wrapped up. At the end of the pre-agreed series of sessions, you can take the opportunity to gather feedback and case studies from the participants. This helps you understand whether the programme is actually benefiting the business and helping staff achieve their goals. The feedback can help change the shape or structure of the scheme to make it better in future rounds.

This can be a helpful marketing mechanism for the internal communications issued to employees to advertise future rounds of the scheme. Drawing on the positive experiences people had can help encourage a broader range of staff to apply in the future.

Related:

  • Coaching and mentoring: definitions, differences and uses

  • A guide to reverse logistics (with benefits and methods)

  • How To Start a Mentoring Programme in 8 Steps (Plus Tips)

  • Mentoring vs. coaching: key differences and benefits

  • 12 mentoring tips you can use to become a better mentor


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