4 Keys to boost your reverse mentoring programme

Ask junior employees to mentor senior managers on the digital transformation. Such an obvious and bright idea. What can go wrong?

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After a few years designing and supporting reverse mentoring programmes, many of the same issues keep coming back. Reverse mentoring is often a great strategy to support the digital transformation of an organisation since it connects senior decision makers with junior digital natives. The idea is simple, by encouraging cross-generational discussions and experience sharing the organisation gains in agility in the digital era. However, in reality, many issues cloud this simple logic and we are going to explore why that happens and how to get over it.

1. Solving the legitimacy issue

One of the recurring issues in reverse mentoring is that the mentors who are juniors in the organisation often do not feel or aren’t legitimate in their posture. They fear that they are not able to answer all questions their senior mentees have about the digital era. They are digital natives, which may not mean they understand the world they are in, they are just comfortable in it and can navigate it easily because that is the only world they know. They did not, like their senior mentees, transition into it, they were born in it. Like asking a fish to explain water.

This explains the discomfort they feel facing all the questions the mentees are asking. Questions which are framed or biased by the perspective of a world before the digital age. Also, their lack of legitimacy stems from the fact that the mentor posture means knowledge, wisdom and experience in our collective mind. As juniors, they do not see themselves yet as knowledgeable, wise or experienced. But fear not, here are three key points to overcome this predicament:

  • A mentor is not an expert;
  • Mentoring is about sharing yourself not answering questions;
  • Mentors can use their networks to complement knowledge gaps if necessary.

If we need an expert, we hire one, we contract a consultant, we build a team of scouts who will bring the latest knowledge on a subject, we buy research, etc. The mentor is valued because he/she can bring some experience, a point of view, a way of going about a problem and some insights into how his/her generation sees the world, works, communicates, lives. So we need to ensure that it is clear between mentors and mentees that the mentor is not expected to have all the answers. Particularly in the digital transformation of the society and workplace, answers will be quickly obsolete. What the mentees need in reverse mentoring is understanding the new logics not have solutions to a current social network problem.

The legitimacy of a reverse mentor comes from:

  • being a digital native,
  • being able to share his experience and thought processes to open new perspectives;
  • being able to build a bridge between digital and non-digital worlds.

All this in order to enlighten the mentee to better navigate that new world.

2. Avoiding the obvious pitfall

The second recurring issue, which I was already talking about last year (How bad is the good idea of juniors mentoring seniors), is the high risk of reverse mentors becoming trainers.

This challenge is rooted in the first issue. Not understanding the mentor posture very well, the reverse mentor may default to the trainer position. And oh so easy it is to go there, with the obvious « how to » technical questions from mentees. For junior mentors, teaching and school are not that far away, so it is a relationship that is more familiar than mentoring. Even if being a trainer may not feel easy, or they may not feel competent in, but at least it is a relationship they understand. There is knowledge, one who has it and one who needs it, all you have to do is transfer it. But then why bother building a mentoring programme when you could just fill a room with seniors and train them … but what training would that be? As I said the digital transformation is NOT about knowing how to use social network tools, apps, gizmos, etc. It is about understanding new paradigms, new ways of thinking the world, markets, products, teams. So how many trainings would we need to get everyone up to speed? And with the pace of change in tech, how often would they need to be in a classroom? They wouldn’t be able to do the job they were hired for. So no, training here is not the solution, mentoring definitely is… IF the mentors do not become trainers.

Here are a few key points to bear in mind when preparing mentors and mentees:

  • Mentoring is about helping the mentee become autonomous;
  • Reverse mentors are not social network trainers;
  • The KPIs of reverse mentoring should be related to the mentee’s job not his ability to use tools.

To avoid the « mentor-trainer » pitfall, remember that mentoring is about transferring understanding rather than knowledge, especially that digital transformation is not reduced to social networks, it expands to big data, algorithms, self-driving cars etc. And the senior managers who are mentees, need to widen their understanding of new markets so they can pivot the strategy.

3. Carefully challenging the resistance

Senior mentees may resist stepping into the digital world, although they are already in it, like it or not. One of the main reasons for this resistance in that in this « new world », mastery is not possible with such rapidly changing usages, technologies and markets, but still leaders are expected to make decisions, to take risks and be successful. Generations X and previous were managing organisations in a context where they could know all the data (or almost). Mastery meant control, which in turn meant lowering risks, hence predictable performance and success.

This change of paradigm can be very unsettling for seniors, managing uncertainty and complexity is not necessarily a skill they have been able to develop.

So the resistance to step in and be active in this new world where digital is everywhere is a way to stay « safe ». Fear of not mastering drives their resistance behaviours. Furthermore, for a senior who has proven his/her status and value to the organisation, it can become difficult to step down to a « learner » level… Ego doesn’t like that!

It is hence key for a reverse mentor to:

  • have some empathy and try to understand this paradigm shift and the emotional consequences of it;
  • help the mentee understand the meaning of these changes.

To carefully challenge the resistance and help the mentees overcome their mindset barrier, reverse mentors need to show some patience, make an effort to manage egos and guide the mentee through the challenges he/she might face. Also it is key for mentees to see the value in actively entering the digital world by guiding them through questions such as: Why should they understand the digital world, and not just how to use LinkedIn? What value can this understanding bring to their everyday work? Why should they bother and go against their old way of thinking? It may be that they can open to a new unseen (until now) market, or be more efficient in their work with their team, or manage their generation Y (and Z) teams better.

4. Weaponizing the junior mentors

Junior mentors are often less experienced in managing work relationships, let alone a different posture like mentoring. And add to that mentoring an older person. Many reverse mentoring sessions end up being a question and answer session, where the mentee has questions (not always the most pertinent ones at that) and the mentor does his best to answer them. Once all questions have been answered then what? Mentors are at loss, and mentees think they know what they needed to know.

Mentoring is more about sharing than about answering, even though some answering may occur. Sharing may be difficult for reverse mentors since they may not know where their own value lies, what could be interesting for the mentee. They may not have the experience or the tools to energize a conversation to allow for mentee’s insights. This is why preparing the mentors, usually via initial and on-going training and co-development sessions can support mentors in acquiring the necessary skills to lead better, deeper, more meaningful and more fruitful conversations.

The three tools I often share with reverse mentors to help them in their role are:

  • Questioning techniques
  • Storytelling
  • Scenario building

The questioning techniques will help them re-dynamise a conversation, help them better understand the mentee, encourage the mentee to think and keep the mentor in his posture (not becoming a trainer).

Storytelling – the mentor relates his experiences – has two benefits. First, it allows the mentee to make his own mind about the experience and gain the learning he needs without the mentor having to calculate what to say to get specific results (away from training again). Secondly, it helps the mentor realise the value of their experience hence solving the legitimacy issue.

Lastly, the scenario building is about helping the mentee project himself into the future, into different usages and opportunities the digital transformation may bring, but also it allows for fears and blockages to emerge so that solutions can be sought.

All in all, reverse mentors need to be equipped with relationship skills so that they can best support their mentees to become autonomous. Reverse mentors are not the mentees’ 24-hour digital helpline.

Reverse mentoring, not that simple

Reverse mentoring, even more than its traditional version, requires a strong emphasis on the mentor’s role and skills so that mentors feel legitimate and comfortable and mentees get real insights that will help them navigate new markets, be up to speed with new ways of working and engage work with new mindsets.

Author: Stéphanie

Specialist of Executive Coaching and Entrepreneurial Mentoring, insightful and open-minded, Stéphanie accompanies organisations in their cultural transformation to support innovation and business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.