Jack Welch, the formidable, former CEO of General Electric (GE), popularized the concept of reverse mentoring in 1999. In his pilot project, he paired 500 senior and junior employees, in hopes the latter would teach the former about technological advances and tools. “We tipped the organization upside down,” he explained. “We now have the youngest and brightest teaching the oldest.
In the years since Welch’s pioneering effort, many companies—including industry leaders such as Target, Cisco, UnitedHealthcare, and Fidelity—have developed their own reverse mentoring programs. Although they vary in scale and scope, all share one common approach: coordinating shared learning between colleagues of diverse backgrounds to create symbiotic corporate learning.
As an academic and leadership consultant, I speak frequently with business leaders about the changing nature of work. Increasingly, they understand the value, and recognize the need, for prioritizing initiatives that focus on human capital.
While reverse mentoring has obvious benefits for the mentor and mentee, the approach can also instigate powerful results for the core organization. Beyond flipping the hierarchy and mobilizing nontraditional teams, it can also facilitate organizations achieving strategic goals such as increasing millennial retention, fostering inclusivity, and maintaining competitive advantage through technological advancements.
Increasing Millennial Retention
The issue of millennial retention looms large for today’s employers. Millennials are now the largest generation in the labor force—and, according to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 43% of the demographic group plan to leave their job in the next two years.
The data highlight a historic turnover rate that has companies scrambling to develop and implement engagement strategies. In addition to flexible environments and socially responsible missions, this generation demands continuous learning and transferable skill development, personal fulfillment, and clear opportunities for career advancement—needs that reverse mentoring support.
For example, Pershing is a financial services company that recently implemented a reverse mentoring program. Following implementation of the company-wide initiative, Pershing experienced a 96% retention rate for the 77 millennials who were involved.
Inverting the hierarchy, and allowing millennials to act as mentors, results in equally beneficial outcomes. In this structure, millennials feel valued for their contributions, gain unparalleled access to networking with senior leaders, and benefit from exposure to alternative career paths. When employers afford such satisfying opportunities, millennials feel confident that their investment in the company will be matched by the company’s investment in their future.
Improving Diversity And Inclusion
A recent Forbes study found that 85% of senior executives believe diverse and inclusive workforces are “crucial” to innovation. Reverse mentorship pairings can breed this inclusivity by bridging the gap between populations diverse in age, exceptionalities, ethnicity, and gender.
After Procter & Gamble’s reverse mentoring program paired senior leaders with employees with disabilities, it discovered its internal videos were inaccessible to those with hearing challenges and, accordingly, added captions to all.
Another approach is demonstrated by law firm Shook Hardy & Bacon, where minority lawyers and senior leaders meet to learn about each other’s challenges and have “difficult conversations on diversity.”
By pairing leaders with employees from different backgrounds, both develop empathic perspectives and reduce unconscious biases. Furthermore, when considered for organizational development strategy, these initiatives can incubate a diverse pipeline of talent that will yield a much-needed percentage increase in the diversity of upper-level management across industries and sectors.
Staying Abreast Of Technological Advancements
Keeping pace with dynamic shifts in technological change is often discouraging for global organizations. Even digital natives, who validate the perceptions of hundreds of global business school graduates recently surveyed, expect the rate of technological and digital advances to be their most difficult leadership challenge.
When Julia Davis, formerly of GE, assumed the role as Aflac’s chief information officer, she paired older IT employees with recent grads to facilitate a transfer of knowledge of trends and best practices. Not only is the reverse mentoring program “paying dividends on the knowledge-sharing front,” reports CIO.com, it’s also “getting traditional IT workers out of their waterfall silos.”
Given that we are on the precipice of Industry 4.0, the need for such synergetic, agile, teams is paramount. “To maximize the potential value of these technologies,” reports Deloitte, “organizations must put humans in the loop—reconstructing work, retraining people, and rearranging the organization.”
While reverse mentoring appropriately complements and advances these strategies, it is vital that companies have a specific reason to create a program—and avoid following suit simply in response to peer activity. Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a University of Minnesota professor who has researched reverse mentoring, reported to the Star Tribune that the most effective programs are “tied to a strong business need.” Other qualities of successful reverse mentoring programs include appropriate pairings, thorough guidelines, and clear goals.
Even if, for budgetary or strategic reasons, a reverse mentoring program doesn’t align with a company’s vision, its underlying concepts cannot be ignored. Regardless of their specific approach, businesses that require competitive advantage must embrace collaboration and the cross-pollination of ideas that encourage organizations to envision new possibilities for success.
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