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Last week, Cambridge University announced a new reverse mentoring initiative aimed at addressing charges of institutional racism. Introduced by the university’s equality and diversity department, the program pairs senior white academics and management personnel with a black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) colleague mentor. It is hoped that the effort will help build awareness, boost diversity, shift culture, and ultimately reverse the divisive behaviors that have alienated BAME students and staff over many years.

Reverse mentoring – pairing a younger professional with a more seasoned colleague – isn’t new. In 1999, then CEO of General Electric Jack Welch paired 500 leaders (including himself) with junior associates to learn about the Internet. Twenty years later, organizations are embracing reverse mentoring to address a wide range of skill and culture gaps in the workplace. Here are four reasons to adopt reverse mentoring in your workplace

1. Leaders Get in Touch with Technology, Trends

Even the best executives and managers with years of work experience and leadership skills can fall behind in keeping up with technological development and trends. In IT, manufacturing, engineering, and other industries where technology is advancing most quickly, it’s not uncommon for younger employees to be more tech-savvy than their older counterparts. As Mr. Welch figured out when he tipped his organization upside down, having younger employees teaching older ones can facilitate a transfer of knowledge and best practices – developing and honing essential skills for leaders. 

These days, reverse mentoring is used to shore up more than tech skills. At Procter & Gamble, reverse mentoring was used to pair senior leaders with employees with disabilities to better understand obstacles within and beyond the workplace. Law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon paired minority lawyers with senior leaders to learn about each other’s challenges and have “difficult conversations on diversity.” Caterpillar’s program pairs a male leader with a female employee to facilitate a “candid conversation on issues such as inclusiveness, gender-bias, transparency, and opportunity.”

Executives who become mentees of their Millennial and Generation Z employees routinely learn lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom, in books, or online. And, with their new-found understanding, senior leaders are in positions to make the changes that make a difference. When Procter & Gamble leaders discovered that their internal videos were not accessible by employees with hearing challenges, they added captions to address the problem.

2. Young Leaders Step Up

Reverse mentoring is a two-way street. Participants describe the experience as a co-learning environment. Senior leaders are certainly learning discreet skill and knowledge sets. The mentors, too, are embracing the opportunity to step up. 

Most junior professionals spend their work days interacting with colleagues within their department or with direct managers. Stepping away from these peer interactions and into a one-on-one, face-to-face mentoring role gives young mentors access and exposure to executives. They discover what they have to offer, gain confidence, and develop skills as future leaders.

3. Workplace Cultures Transform for Inclusiveness

The real magic of reverse mentoring happens outside the individual mentor-mentee relationships. As an organization fills itself with individuals who are growing in their understanding and respect of others, things change. Leaders get better at leading. Young professionals feel engaged and empowered. Workplace interactions and collaborations carry an undertone of respect and inclusiveness. Essentially, workplace cultures change for the better – and for the long-term.

Reverse mentoring programs also help build a talent pool of future leaders who will be more diverse, more aware, more sensitive, and more skilled than much of the upper-level management we see today. Across industries and sectors, succession plans will be  shored up by tech-savvy, culturally aware, experienced rising leaders who know the value of recruiting, retaining, and cultivating a diverse workforce.

4. Customer Insights Emerge

Benefits of reverse mentoring extend well beyond the “four walls” of your organization. When leaders and workers are more tuned into the needs, wants, and preferences of each other, it’s only a tiny step to being more in tune with customers, too. 

Just ask Estee Lauder, who just claimed the top spot on Forbes’ “America’s Best Employers For Women 2019” list. The 73-year-old “global leader in prestige beauty” credits its reverse mentoring program with helping executives understand what young consumers want. That insight led to multiple acquisitions of beauty brands preferred by Millennials and Generation Z. 

Reverse mentoring programs vary in scope and scale from one company and industry to the next. But they all focus on shared learning between professionals of differing backgrounds to create positive corporate learning experiences, build inclusive cultures, and reveal customer insights. In other words, reverse mentoring is a win-win-win for executives, employees, and customers alike. 

If you’re interested in insights for creating future leaders, read our Talent Management Strategies to Build Your Future Workforce white paper. Or contact us to see how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills can help you build skills and cultures through reverse mentoring. 

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