Reverse Mentoring

Merilyn Speiser , 21 September 2016

Reverse mentoring has much to offer architectural practices, with potential benefits to employees, employers and the whole business. Merilyn Speiser of Catalina Consultants explains how to set up and run an effective program. 

If you’ve ever been part of the mentoring process, you’ve probably already seen first-hand how skills gaps and opportunities to learn exist on both sides. Welcome to reverse mentoring. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is credited with coining the term ‘reverse mentoring’. Put simply, this happens when a mentee passes new skills and ideas back up to their more experienced mentor.

This makes a lot of sense in architecture, where younger employees may have a good understanding of rapidly developing technologies, new programs and the the burgeoning impact of social media, for example. This knowledge can be usefully shared with older colleagues, who have their own hard-won knowledge and experience to share in return. Mentoring and reverse mentoring helps to build good cross-generational relationships within a practice, enabling the business to benefit from a broader range of views, input and experiences. 

How to set up an effective reverse mentoring program

As with any other system in your workplace, the effectiveness of reverse mentoring depends on the effort you put into developing and maintaining it. To build an effective program, keep these key principles in mind:

  1. Start with the right partnerships. For larger practices we recommend putting an application process in place for both mentors and mentees to ensure the best possible pairings. While this may take more time up front, it will be worth it in the long run.
  2. Provide training. Mentors and mentees should have the chance to learn how make the most of their relationship without having to rely on instinct alone. Training on basics like giving and receiving feedback, time management and goal setting should be part of the program. And ideally this training should happen early on.
  3. Set clear goals and measure progress. It’s important that mentors, mentees and management are all clear about the program’s goals, and know exactly how they’ll be measured, right from the start. For instance, what are mentors expected to learn over the course of the program? How will they need to demonstrate this new knowledge?
  4. Keep communication lines open. The best mentor/mentee relationships involve regular opportunities to reflect on progress and communicate any concerns before real problems arise. Understanding the other person’s communication preferences (ie, is your mentor already swamped by email? Does your mentee respond better to face-to-face instructions?) will make everything easier when it comes time to deliver under pressure.
  5. Be respectful and open-minded at all times. This is the crucial factor that changes a one-way mentoring relationship into a true exchange. If both parties see every interaction – even the difficult ones – as part of a learning process, they’re much more likely to finish the program with the new skills they were aiming for.

Common mistakes in reverse mentoring

While the principles outlined above should keep mentors and mentees on the right track, there are some warning signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Resistance from senior team members who aren’t open to feedback from those with less experience.
  • Younger mentees who feel intimidated and need support to communicate effectively with senior staff.
  • Time-poor mentors or mentees who aren’t fully engaged. Make sure you let these people know exactly how the program will benefit them.
  • Any signs of a disrespectful approach, on either side.

The benefits of reverse mentoring

The two-way engagement built in to reverse mentoring opens up a whole range of positive outcomes.

It doesn’t just the knowledge gap between mentors and mentees, but also brings people from different generations together across your organisation. It also gives established leaders the chance to asks the questions while giving emerging leaders a taste of what’s to come.

Merilyn Speiser is Principal Consultant at Catalina Consultants, which she founded in 2012 to provide HR and strategic advice to small and medium sized businesses.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Catalina Consultants blog and is republished with permission.

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