The Rules of Engagement for Reverse Mentoring
My colleague Chris Browning recently wrote about the increase in conversations he’s been having with prospective clients about implementing a reverse mentoring program. As Chris explains, he’s been very excited about the growing intertest in this process, due in large part to the strategic thinking and plans these prospects have produced.
While having a plan in place for a specific reverse mentoring program is a solid start, there are additional factors that organizations will need to consider if they are serious about starting reverse mentoring. Because of the way reverse mentoring is set up, with a more senior employee as the mentee and a more junior employee as the mentor, there may be some inherent discomfort for the people in these roles. A senior executive may struggle a bit with taking advice from someone who is lower in the organizational hierarchy. And on the flip side, a more junior (and often younger) employee may not feel comfortable with giving feedback or challenging the thinking of someone who could potentially tank their career.
So what’s a mentoring administrator to do? Well, if you want your reverse mentoring program to be a success, here are 10 how-to tips that can help ensure your mentees and mentors discover the value and joy of mentoring.
Make reverse mentoring a success! Help your mentees and mentors learn how to:
1. Set guidelines.
First off, establish parameters for all of the mentoring relationships that will occur as part of your reverse mentoring program. Perhaps you want each pair to focus on helping the executive learn about social media, or maybe you want them to pay attention to identifying and leveraging a Millennial viewpoint on work-related topics. No matter what the purpose is for the program, help your mentees and mentors understand what it is 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.
2. Accept feedback.
Many executives are used to issuing orders, but not necessarily to taking feedback. It may be even harder when that feedback comes from a lower level employee. As a mentoring program administrator, it’s important that you help your executive mentees prepare for and be open to accepting feedback from their more junior mentors. Without having this mindset, the mentoring relationship could be doomed from the start.
3. Give feedback.
In the same vein, it might be difficult, or at least uncomfortable, for the junior mentor to give their mentee (e.g., their CEO or VP or boss’s boss’s boss) feedback. No one wants to say the wrong thing or make a bad impression on the person in power who can make their work life hell or push them out of a job. But the whole point of reverse mentoring is for the junior mentor to help the senior mentee learn something. Part of that learning experience requires giving feedback. As the mentoring program administrator, you should help your mentees understand the role they are being asked to play and the tasks that will be expected of them. These new mentors might benefit from a brief training session on how to give effective feedback, and they may also need to explicitly hear that they are allowed and expected to give feedback to their mentee. (River offers training to support mentoring programs. Learn more!)
4. Hold a superior accountable.
Related to giving a superior feedback is holding a superior accountable. This might feel very uncomfortable for a junior mentor, but it goes to the heart of all good mentoring relationships. Mentees need to be held accountable for their actions, promises, commitments, etc. It does not do anyone any good to have a mentee who does not follow through on their tasks or responsibilities. The mentor must make sure that their mentee follows through as needed. In your role as mentoring program administrator, you can help make sure this happens by educating both the mentee and mentor on what is expected of them and how the power structure of the relationship should flow. It can also help for the mentoring pair to talk early on about expectations and how to support and prod one another when needed.
**Download our Ultimate Guide to Reverse Mentoring eBook!**
5. Respect one another.
Yes, some of the first few points can be uncomfortable or even awkward, but one factor will make them take shape in the positive manner they are intended: respect. Having respect for one another is a hallmark of a mentoring relationship, no matter who the mentee or mentor are. Respect for one another will show up in how the pair speak to one another, listen to one another, treat one another, and treat their relationship. Without respect, mentoring pairs may not give or receive feedback in the spirit it is intended. Or perhaps they won’t believe the best of one another when one falls short of a commitment. As the mentoring program administrator, it is critical that you drive home the fact that respect for one another and the relationship must be front and center to all that the pair does in their mentoring relationship. (Check out our “4 Phrases to Use in Mentoring” eBook to help with this point.)
6. Create a trusting relationship.
With respect, comes trust. When mentees and mentors believe the best in someone and know they are open to giving or receiving feedback, open to learning from or teaching something to their partner, and acting with the best intentions, they build trust in them. This trust may not come easily, but it is essential for a mentoring relationship to work. As a mentoring administrator, you can help mentees and mentors begin to build that trust by having them establish guidelines for their relationships. What will be the focus of the relationship? What will be considered off limits? Trust certainly takes time to build, but if people are willing to be vulnerable and open, they will go a long way to building meaningful trust with their partner. (Get more tips on how to build trust in mentoring relationships in this blog.)
7. Be authentic.
Authenticity goes hand-in-hand with trust. When an individual trusts their mentoring partner, they can be more open and genuine with them as a result. And by being more open and genuine, they build on that trust because they show their partner their true self. It’s a cyclical pattern that creates a positive connection between people, and is something that mentoring administrators should push for. Encourage your mentees and mentors to be themselves. When they present themselves with sincerity, they form a stronger bond and foundation for their mentoring relationship, and they also create a richer mentoring experience for themselves and their partners. (Check out this blog about how mentoring brings out the best in us.)
8. Listen with an open mind.
While this ties in with receiving feedback, the idea of listening with an open mind goes a step further and applies to both parties in a mentoring relationship. Mentees and mentors who trust and respect one another will find it easier to listen to their partner without judging them. They will be able to hear what each other is saying without tuning them out. This principle will also help them stay actively engaged in the conversation instead of only half listening while they formulate their response to what their partner is saying. In your role as a mentoring program administrator, you can assist mentees and mentors with this skill by giving them tools and techniques that they can apply in their relationships to support and encourage open and active listening. You might also consider providing training on this topic to start the pairs off on the right foot.
9. Set goals.
Most mentoring relationships focus on the goals that the mentee wants to set and work toward accomplishing. Mentors will need to agree that the goals are ideal for the relationship, and that can be tricky for junior mentors in reverse mentoring. They may not feel suited or powerful enough to voice their opinion on what the executive mentee’s goals should be. Some mentoring program administrators set up goals for the pairs in the form of an overarching program goal, such as having the executive learn about a new technology or how to use social media to interact better with the workforce. Having a program goal as the basis for the relationship can help your mentees and mentors have a clear focus upon which they can set additional or interrelated goals. It can also be helpful for you as the administrator to teach the pairs that both parties should have a voice in setting the goals. This explicit permission can help ease any apprehension the mentor may feel.
10. Hold confidences.
The foundation of a mentoring relationship must be built on trust, and building this trust means setting boundaries with one another and keeping privileged information private. Confidentiality is critical to making the most of mentoring; without it, mentees and mentors won’t trust one another enough to be open, honest, vulnerable, etc. Executive mentees need to be careful they don’t cross any lines with their mentors when it comes to what information is shared and expected to be held confidential; care must be taken so that they do not put their mentors in an awkward position. The junior mentors will also need to be sure they take this confidentiality seriously and do not spread information to others outside of the mentoring relationship. As the mentoring program administrator, you can help the mentoring pairs understand and commit to confidentiality by actively bringing it into the open and discussing it with all participants at the beginning of the program. Help mentees and mentors talk with one another to establish boundaries and expectations for confidentiality.
Reverse mentoring can be a fantastic way to share knowledge. There are many senior leaders out there who could use a little mentoring, and plenty of more junior employees out there who are willing to share what they know. By helping your participants understand what is expected of them, what the goal of the program is, what the focus of the relationship will be, and some techniques to use to manage their relationships, your reverse mentoring program can be a positive experience for all involved.