Stop. Look. And Listen.

Why every leader should have a reverse mentor.

There is something intrinsically interesting and refreshing about rethinking something that we know well. Who isn’t intrigued by the idea of donut holes? The invitation to reimagine somehow opens up the potential for innovation and change. It’s refreshing to consider the undiscovered opportunities that thinking differently about a known quantity provides.

Reverse mentoring is a wonderful example of this and one of the aspects of my work that endlessly excites and surprises me, as well as always ignites interest and conversation. The concept that every senior leader should have a reverse mentor- is one that I subscribe to. Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyds of London does too, “I’d recommend it to everybody.” she says, “It keeps you in touch with what the younger generation and the leaders of the future are looking for in the workplace.”

The potential value that growing a successful and meaningful relationship, understanding the lived experience, and really getting under the skin of someone’s different perspective – especially someone working in the same organisation – offers, is a world of possibility for original thinking and organisational improvement.

When it’s done well, reverse mentoring offers real potential to rethink ‘how we do things around here’ and, importantly, to act on that thinking. And when the reverse mentee is someone senior within any business, the ability to directly influence and/or make decisions, means change can happen without the layers of bureaucracy that can often get in the way.

Reverse Mentoring is a process that flips traditional mentoring, usually by pairing junior staff to mentor more senior leaders. Not only does this concept provide senior leaders with a different perspective and insights, but it provides the structure to empower younger people who otherwise may not have the opportunity, or confidence, to speak and share their experiences and ideas directly with those at the top.

However, be warned, it is not for the faint-hearted or those who think they have all of the answers. If you are keen to have a reverse mentor and are thinking about becoming a reverse mentee, here are some top tips on how to do it well.

1. Create a Safe Space

In all successful mentoring relationships, both people spend time getting to know each other at the start. The temptation to rush into goals and objectives is strong, especially when that’s how we spend our workdays. But the value of talking about who we are, where we’re from, what is important to us, how we got here, some of our life experiences… is that we have a better understanding of each other as people.

When we start to connect as two humans and share more of who we are in an equal thinking partnership, then we really begin to build deep trust, empathy, and curiosity about each other. When we are able to talk about and embrace our mistakes, explore our assumptions and recognise that neither one of us is anywhere near perfect, then we build what is critical for a truly successful reverse mentoring relationship, psychological safety.

Enhancing workplace conversations

2. Beginners Mindset

As a senior leader in the organisation, you have the opportunity to use the experience of Reverse Mentoring to effect real change. Your role as a Reverse Mentee is to really step back into the learner role and remember to tap into the mindset of a beginner. Having a “beginner’s mind” offers the ability to stay open, fresh, and eager while approaching a problem. Some practical ways to help step into more of a Beginner’s Mindset are:

  1. Practice saying, ‘I don’t know’ (even if you think you do)
  2. Focus on asking questions, not giving answers
  3. Try and notice every time you say ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought to’. Ask yourself, what if the opposite were true?
  4. Let go of being an expert
  5. Get curious about as much as possible, as often as possible.

You may catch yourself assuming that there are certain questions or topics you wouldn’t raise with your Reverse Mentor ‘because they won’t have had this experience yet’. Ask them anyway. They may not have had the experience, but they may well have some interesting thoughts about it or share a very different perspective. You are trying to uncover the moments of ‘I hadn’t thought about it like that’.

3. Join a Structured Programme

Reverse mentoring in a pair can be a seriously powerful experience and joining a programme dials that up even further. Being part of a shared experience with peers and other colleagues allows for a greater learning opportunity than going it alone. Hearing the stories of other reverse mentees, mentors and pairs provides inspiration and ideas for your own mentoring. Reconnecting with the overall ‘why’ of the programme keeps your conversations purposeful and on track. And remember, it’s very easy to fall back into the roles of traditional mentoring, so any good programme will help you check in on ‘How reverse are you being?’.

4. Connect Regularly

Other ‘very important’ appointments will try and get in the way of your scheduled meetings. Remember that this is a unique part of your learning journey as a leader and adds value to your organisation. Make it the priority. Of course, there may one session which just has to move, or it may be that there is a life-altering event – a birth or death, for instance – which means that things go on hold. Remember John Lennon’s words that; ‘life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans’. Consider this as part of the learning journey and move forward, get a new date in as soon as you both can.

5. Implement Change

Being part of a Reverse Mentoring programme requires bravery, courage and a willingness to accept that, at times, you will probably both feel uncomfortable with the conversation. However, the power that comes with this, in the hands of any senior leader, is that you are closer to the heart of decisions that can enable change. We’ve seen programmes that have resulted in significant cultural and organisational learning and change. From dress for your day initiatives, to a national shadow board.

Listening, being curious, exploring difficult blocks and barriers and growing together, breaks down the traditional barriers of top down hierarchy, drives engagement, skills and knowledge transfer. It builds trust and brings about cultural change. I believe that any organisation looking to kindle, nurture and sustain cultural change is missing a trick if they are not already considering reverse mentoring.

If you’re keen to have a chat about how Reverse Mentoring can be an important step into the future world of work in your organisation, do get in touch.

By Emily Cosgrove

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