Reverse mentoring can provide corporate leaders with valuable generational and cultural perspective, and foster inclusivity by bridging the gap between populations diverse in age, ethnicity, culture and gender.
Many companies establish reverse mentoring programs around age, with millennials helping older colleagues understand generational perspectives and learn new technology.
Other reverse mentoring programs focus on bringing together leaders from majority groups with more junior colleagues from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, straight people with colleagues who are LGBTQ, or non-disabled colleagues with disabled colleagues.
The opportunities for learning and open discussion that reverse mentoring provides are fluid and countless, and the connections formed by mentors and mentees can improve morale and result in collegial relationships that last beyond the life of the mentoring program.
Reverse mentoring can provide corporate leaders with valuable generational and cultural perspective, and foster
inclusivity by bridging the gap between populations diverse in age, ethnicity, culture and gender.
Many companies establish reverse mentoring programs around age, with millennials helping older colleagues understand generational perspectives and learn new technology. For example, in companies where technology is advancing quickly, it’s not uncommon for younger employees to be more tech-savvy than their older counterparts, in which case assigning them as mentors to provide training on social media and tech advancements to senior level mentees can be effective.
Other reverse mentoring programs focus on bringing together leaders from majority groups with more junior colleagues from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, straight people with colleagues who are LGBTQ, or non-disabled colleagues with disabled colleagues. In these cases, mentors have unique experiences which can provide valuable insight and encourage other more senior leaders to take action to break down barriers and promote inclusivity.
Through this type of reverse mentoring process, the mentor (often junior and from diverse or underrepresented employee group), mentors the senior person about what it is like to work in the company as a member of an underrepresented community. However, conversations around ethnicity, diversity and LGBTQ issues require a level of expertise in equality, diversity and inclusion, and should be handled in a sensitive way. Companies often launch their reverse mentoring program around age and tech, then around gender, and then move on to protected characteristics.
The opportunities for learning and open discussion that reverse mentoring provides are fluid and countless, and the connections formed by mentors and mentees can improve morale and result in collegial relationships that last beyond the life of the mentoring program. Nothing says, “We value your skills and contribution to the company” quite like asking someone to share what they know, and coach and inspire others—starting with senior leaders.
Be clear about the purpose of the program. Articulate the business case for the reverse mentoring program and the
problem it seeks to solve. For example, if the organization is facing low representation of women and/or people of color in management and leadership positions, the mentoring program may be geared around increasing awareness and overcoming barriers women and minorities face in the workplace.
Duration: Mentoring typically lasts from six months to two years, with one to three hour sessions occurring at least monthly. Sessions often are structured around certain topics, although they should not be so rigid that mentees and mentors can’t veer off into other areas of interest or concern.
Train both parties for their role. Junior participants need training in how to confront and challenge more senior participants, while senior participants must learn how to be open to these challenges. Mentors in particular, may not feel confident challenging a senior colleague. Providing them with some tools and guidance on this in advance can be helpful.
Start small. Developing safe and positive reverse mentoring relationships can be tricky. It is best to start with small pilot programs and then use pilot participants as a steering committee for roll out of the program on a wider scale.
Set guidelines. Trust: Reverse mentoring requires the trust of each party and a willingness to learn from each other. The goal should be to push participants beyond their comfort zones and encourage them to try new ways of thinking, working and behaving. Consider how you will prepare both parties in this respect.
Training: Confidentiality: The relationship should be private so avoid disclosing who the participants are unless both parties consent. Within the relationships, participants operate under the assumption that conversations are confidential unless otherwise agreed.
Assessing outcomes: Make sure your mentoring program includes measurable goals and metrics that will capture outcomes and assess progress throughout the program duration.
Reverse mentoring often involves two people with extremely different experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, creating the ideal mentoring partnership is vital.
Pairing mentors and mentees should be based on the objectives of the reverse mentoring program. For example, if the goal is to increase diversity in management and senior ranks, or improve the experience of minority employees in the workforce, it would make sense to pair a white senior executive mentee with an employee of color that can provide insight and perspective related to barriers and obstacles. If the goal is to increase gender representation in the organization, the pair might include a male senior leader mentee and female mentor, potentially a female employee of color.
Establish parameters for reverse mentoring relationships. No matter what the purpose is for the program, help mentees and mentors understand what they are being asked to do so that they can begin their relationship with a common understanding of why they are meeting with one another.
Choose mentors who possess good social skills and have the confidence to interact with and teach senior management. As this is not a typical situation for either party, the relationship can be a little uncomfortable. It is important for everyone to leave their comfort zone and be open-minded about how to move forward. Mentoring is about learning new skills and competencies and this cannot be done in a reverse mentoring relationship unless everyone is willing and able to try something different.
Don’t pair people from the same team. This enables both parties to speak freely outside of the management line.
It is all too easy for both junior and senior participants to fall back into a hierarchical pattern of behavior. Review relationships regularly to ensure they are on track.
Not all pairings will be successful and this is to be expected. If challenges occur, the contact point should assess if there are ways to broker a way forward and if not facilitate a clean, no blame conclusion to the pairing, assessing whether there are options for an alternative match.
High program participation and low drop–out rate. Expect most participants to attend a launch event; by the end, program close event attendance will be lower. A drop–out rate of up to 10–15% is almost inevitable over the course of a 6 to 12–month program, as people change jobs or circumstances change. A higher rate of pairs not making it to the end, is an indicator of either poor design or insufficient contact from a program manager.
High match satisfaction. Re–matching should be rare if matching is done properly to begin with.
High mentee goal achievement. Did most mentees say they achieved what they intended?
High program satisfaction. At the end, over 80% of mentees should say it was either a good experience or one of the best things they’d ever done.
High positive impact on brand impression. Almost all participants agree the mentoring program experience reflects positively on their view of the organization.
Other measures to consider include:
• Is there a higher engagement or retention rate amongst people who have been mentors or mentored?
• Are mentees more likely than their peers to be promoted or take new stretch assignments?
• Are people who have provided mentorship to others better leaders than their peers?
• Has mentoring become a part of the culture, to the point that informal mentoring is now happening across the organization?
• Is mentoring shifting the culture dial? What changes have occurred to increase diversity and inclusion as a result of the mentoring program?
• Have the problems/issues the program was established to address and solve for improved?
Although The Hartford’s reverse mentoring program was established to build technical competency and
expertise among the organization’s senior leaders, the construct and implementation of the program provides
a useful toolkit for any organization considering a reverse mentoring program.
A core team of junior and senior staff at The Hartford established the program’s goals:
• Develop a broad and deep understanding of the latest tools and trends impacting social media interactions.
• Experience the changing consumer marketplace and maximize communication in a variety of social media platforms—with an emphasis on listening to what consumers are saying.
• Generate a system for the mentor/mentee pairs to communicate efficiently and effectively.
• See the market through the “eyes of Millennials,” getting to know that generation’s distinctive perspectives on consumer behavior and business growth opportunities.
• Drive cultural change within the company to adopt and keep pace with modern technologies and practices.
The mentees were the CEO and key leaders from such business units as digital commerce, consumer markets,
technology, law, operations and claims. All of the mentees had some familiarity with social media and emerging technology. What the mentors offered them was the chance to explore applications of the technology to their own lines of business within The Hartford, and also the chance to get to know representatives of a new generation of customers.
To recruit mentors, the core team sought people across the enterprise who had strong technical and
communication skills and who were early in their careers, top performers in their positions, and at ease with
social media. Applicants were required to submit a talent profile, to complete a short questionnaire on their
skills and experience, and to solicit recommendations from their teammates and manager.
As the core team culled the applications, they paid close attention to candidates’ backgrounds, hobbies, and
personal interests, looking for any that intersected with those of the mentees. The hope was that common
interests would keep the mentor/mentee pairs engaged in personal conversation throughout the program—thus building morale and collegial relationships that would last beyond the life of the project.
To avoid conflicts of interest, mentors had to be multiple levels below their assigned mentees in the corporate hierarchy and in a different line of business or function.
In the end, the core team chose a group of mentors with focus on diversity of geographic location,
backgrounds, and gender. A coach from the company’s human resources department was designated to
support each pair.
A talent profile template is used at The Hartford for internal talent management purposes, especially to highlight top talent. Because it is easier to absorb than a traditional resume, the reverse mentoring team adopted the template as a way for mentors to introduce themselves to mentees.
Each mentor filled out a talent profile, complete with a photograph. The core reverse mentoring team collected and used the profiles to pair mentees and mentors in consideration of their lines of business, current and past work experience, hobbies, and personal backgrounds.
In reviewing references, the core team wanted to know, among other things, if candidates were trustworthy and had a reputation for keeping information confidential—traits that would be reassuring to the mentees.
Formal guidelines were established by the core team to provide structure and accountability for the program.
This document served as a companion for the mentors, establishing their responsibilities for the project, tips on content, and advice on professional behavior.
For example, guidelines for the project reminded mentors to dress appropriately, arrive for appointments 10 minutes early, be ready to offer a two-minute “elevator pitch” about their own career aspirations, study the mentee’s experience and accomplishments, and—basically—not to do all the talking.
A prerequisite for mentors was assurance that they could give the project several hours a month during their regular work schedules. For each monthly session, mentors were expected to need an hour for research and for meetings with other mentors, an hour to prepare the session, an hour to conduct the session, and an hour for notes and other follow-up.
Next the core team set up a master schedule. The core team responsible for managing the reverse mentoring program decided not to deploy all of the pairs at once, but instead in two waves with a period for review and evaluation in between. The pairs met for a half-hour or an hour every three to four weeks, generally in the offices of the mentees. A master schedule for the sessions and interim meetings held the participants accountable for the reverse mentoring project’s orderly conduct and completion. The sessions were posted to everyone’s calendar in advance.
Each session had a formal agenda, which the mentors set in response to their mentees’ knowledge, needs, and interests—information that the mentors were tasked to research before the project started. Before each session, mentors met briefly with mentees to review and update what was expected during that session.
Between sessions, the mentees completed reading assignments and the mentors met with their coaches to discuss session topics, approaches, and activities. Mentors met with their coaches from the human resources department at least three times during the first wave of the project.
SharePoint was used for communication. This efficient tool allowed participants to communicate between sessions and coaching meetings without having to schedule an appointment or find a conference room. A leaderboard on the site provided project statistics, sortable by mentee/mentor pair, by department, and by session. Keeping track of whose sessions were up to date, whose were behind, who was posting their session notes, and who was not developed into a friendly competition among the teams as the project continued. The SharePoint site also allowed the core team to monitor each pair throughout the project, and use what they learned to inform their plans for the project’s second wave.
Throughout the project, mentors and mentees reported having “aha” moments and eye-opening ideas that led them to embark on new activities or conduct business in new ways.
In a recent marketing campaign, for example, management planned to contact prospective customers by telephone. One of the mentors informed a senior executive that most Millennials use mobile phones, not landlines—thus saving the company time and money and making the campaign more likely to succeed with its target clientele.
Following a mentoring session late in the project, an executive mentee walked his mentor down the hall to introduce him to senior-level colleagues. The mentee said, “This is my reverse mentor, and I want you to talk with him about your career. He’s doing amazing things for me right now in mine.” As a result of the mentee’s support and introductions, within two weeks the Millennial mentor had scheduled appointments with senior leaders who were not yet in the program. At the end of the first wave, the mentor was promoted.
More than 50 mentees in seven states participated; 70 percent completed at least five of the seven sessions. Of 12 mentees who participated in the first wave, 80 percent rated the project “extremely effective/effective” for Business and 97 percent rated it “extremely effective/effective” for Personal.
Many mentees said they realized part way through the project’s first wave that their mentors were some of the company’s best and brightest adopters of new communication technology. They saw that retaining these employees going forward would be a critical factor in sustaining The Hartford’s talent pipeline.
The mentors gained the chance to make a difference at The Hartford beyond the scope of the jobs they had been hired to do, and also the chance to have direct, working relationships with people in the company’s top echelons.
Along the way, they acquired fundamental training in professional comportment. Of the 12 mentors in the project’s first wave, 11 were promoted within a year of the program’s inception. While these promotions were not a direct result of participation in the reverse mentoring program, these top-talented junior employees benefited from a significant amount of exposure, sponsorship and stretch development.
As a result of multigenerational collaboration that evolved from conversations during the reverse mentoring project, two patents were written and filed. Work on both is confidential and continues. Anecdotal evidence of the project’s impact is also strong. Throughout the project, mentors and mentees reported having “aha” moments and eye-opening ideas that led them to embark on new activities or conduct business in new ways.
One welcome decision for the company’s tech-savvy employees was not only to allow but also to support the use of social media by employees to do their work. This decision required an update of the organization’s Electronic Usage policy, and was explicitly linked to the reverse mentoring project.
Another outcome was The Hartford workforce’s rising comfort with the company’s internal electronic communications network. Instead of scheduling meetings first to present information and then to follow up, the staff became accustomed to putting information “out there on the network” where others could consider it and comment on it.
As a result, meetings that did need to be held were more productive. If The Hartford had not conducted the reverse mentoring project, one might ask how long it would have taken employees—senior managers in particular—to pick up these new communication habits.
The senior leadership and junior staff adopted reverse mentoring for one purpose: as a strategy that would position The Hartford to use social media and emerging technology to drive innovation. Once the project got the two groups talking, though, creative ideas began to surface about new topics that reverse mentoring pairs might profitably explore: diversity, green corporate practices, and sustainability, for example. The core team is deciding how to incorporate some of these topics in Wave III of the program.
One testament to the project’s success at The Hartford is a push from mentors and mentees to create an alumni group so they can nurture and maintain their relationships and knowledge—a development that was extremely encouraging to the core team.