A reverse mentor - the most critical relationship for a leader?

At a recent launch of a new Reverse Mentoring programme, one of the freshly fledged mentees (a well-established partner in the firm) came up to me full of enthusiasm and claimed “Every senior leader should have a reverse mentor!” She had just experienced the value of an hour’s mentoring conversation with her reverse mentor.

She had also spent the day with ten of her peers understanding and preparing for the role of reverse mentee. Exploring how to embrace a beginner’s mindset. Raising their self-awareness of what comes with the position of power they inherently show up with, and how to begin fostering psychological safety. These 11 mentees had also spent the day with 11 far more junior colleagues who were similarly preparing for the role of reverse mentor.

Over the day, these 22 people had worked together to consider the power dynamic that exists in all hierarchical organisations and begin challenging and equalising it within the context of a one-to-one conversation. To experience the power of busting assumptions. To begin growing a relationship with someone with a very different lived experience to themselves.

Reverse Mentor

It was a powerful and energising day. It had its challenges and celebrations. There were uncomfortable moments and joyful ones. It was just the very start of their reverse mentoring journey. One which will require a commitment to meet every month for the next nine. To reconnect and remember what they want to learn from their time together. To ask the gritty, uncomfortable, naive, and awkward questions. To feel the embarrassment or shame when they say the wrong thing, but to have the courage to say it, and to hear it, acknowledge it, and together have the openness and willingness to learn from it.

As we get more senior, it’s easy to get stuck in our ways. It can often feel safer just to stay with what we know. But to stay relevant, we need to remain curious and keep learning. We need to push ourselves to challenge the status quo. We need to hold onto all that is new and emerging in the world. To keep our fingers on the pulse of the very different perspectives that people who are much more junior within our organisations have.

I was challenged recently on why a reverse mentor is necessary to do this. And, of course, a reverse mentor is not necessary. We can do this through pulse surveys, focus groups, reading the Sunday magazines or browsing the socials.

But what we gain from engaging in a one-to-one relationship with someone very different from ourselves, is an experience of intimacy and vulnerability. And this is a unique and precious thing at work. For it is in the messy experience of live, unscripted, honest conversation; in sharing our life stories, where we really face our assumptions, meet our power differences, and ultimately can begin to change our behaviour and choices.

So, if you are a senior leader keen to really effect positive change, to stay current, and drive your organisation forward with energy and insight… maybe, you need a reverse mentor.

In fact, maybe all senior leaders need one after all?

If you’re interested in finding out more, why not take a look at the RSM Reverse Mentoring Programme case study here.

Or watch the short video below where some of the participants share their experiences of cross-generational conversations.

By Emily Cosgrove