Use a ‘reverse mentor’ to get ahead

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Mentoring usually involves a senior manager passing on knowledge to someone younger. Flip the relationship and great things can happen…

Gihan Perera’s mentor works as his PA and business manager. She’s 25 and runs her own business, as well as working with Perera. The futurist and author has many more years of experience than his business manager, but he feels she can teach him at least as much as he can teach her.

“In my presentations, I often show a picture of Pong,” he explains. “This is what video games looked like when I was growing up. My partner’s teenage son, Josh, loves computer games, and they look very different to him. The point is this: there are a lot of leaders, business owners, trainers and facilitators who are still Pong thinkers in an Xbox world.”

But most of those team leaders, managers and owners have a source of Xbox thinking in their organisations. Junior members of their team will have grown up with the internet and rapidly evolving technology. They can teach their superiors a lot about how the world is changing.

This is ‘reverse mentoring’, an idea that originated at General Electric in 1999. Jack Welch, the chief executive at the time, saw the value in pairing younger employees in their 20s and 30s, who were generally more familiar with the internet and related technologies, with senior executives, including Welch himself, who had little idea of how to use the web to the advantage of the business.

Since then, as the rate of technological change has increased, the idea has caught on at other organisations – most recently the BBC, which rolled out its reverse-mentoring programme in October.

Another is US insurance company The Hartford. As a result of its reverse mentoring programme, The Hartford started sharing ideas through online networks, and improved engagement with younger customers through channels such as social media.

The reverse mentors benefited too: of the 12 young employees involved in the first wave of the programme, 11 were promoted within 12 months. “I’m a big fan of reverse mentoring,” says Perera. “It’s such an easy thing to do if you’ve got a mindset that says: ‘I know I don’t know everything, and I really want to learn from somebody else who can help me learn, and I can help them learn as well.’”

The key benefit of reverse mentoring is understanding how best to use unfamiliar tools and technology. For example, when Perera first took on his business manager, she recommended they use Slack for instant messaging and Trello for project management when working remotely. Perera had signed up to both platforms, but hadn’t found a way to use them effectively in his business. Through reverse mentoring, he was able to make the most of them.

Reverse to go forwards

If reverse mentoring is to be effective, the reverse mentor must be a promising person whom you can trust to help you make decisions. Having someone like that on board will always pay off for your business.

When Perera first engaged with his reverse mentor, he told her that he wanted her to be free to exercise good judgement within his business once she understood it better. “I knew she had good judgement because she’s a business owner herself,” he says. “She’s got a lot of experience in customer service and so on. I want to teach her enough about my business so that I can set her free to work without checklists, procedures and templates for everything.”

Perera first became a manager in the early 1990s, when ‘total quality management’ was all the rage – a system that was all about implementing checklists, templates and procedures for every task. He cites motivational speaker Matt Church as having the answer for good management now.

“It’s more and more about the people in your team,” says Perera. “If you choose your talent well, your people will have skills and talents way beyond their job descriptions, procedures, roles and systems. If you choose quality, you can trust them more. You can lean on them more, you can ask more of them, and you can use them as real mentors – and not just people that you mentor.”

How to find a reverse mentor

Interested in reverse mentoring? Follow The Hartford’s steps to create an effective programme:

1. Find someone who you can trust

One of the main requirements for prospective reverse mentors on The Hartford’s programme is that they can be trusted to keep information confidential. In your team, you’ll know which team members you can trust the most. They would be good candidates for reverse mentoring.

2. Look for personal connections

The Hartford looked at the backgrounds of all of its reverse mentor candidates to identify hobbies and interests that were shared by senior management, thereby ensuring a convergence of interests between reverse mentor and mentee. This increases the chance of a rapport developing, which ensures better engagement in the programme.

3. Give it enough time

Both parties should devote several hours a month to the mentorship programme. Reverse mentors are asked to put in an hour for research, an hour for preparation, an hour for the session itself, and an hour for the follow-up.

4. Cast your net wide

The Hartford paired reverse mentors and mentees from completely different business functions to avoid conflicts of interest. This may not be possible in a smaller organisation, but it is wise to look for a different viewpoint, set of skills and experience when selecting a reverse mentor.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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