Ryanair is a no-frills airline serving Europe. Every year, around 130 million people fly with Ryanair, and almost all of those customers buy their tickets on a website designed by John Beckett. What’s interesting about this website is that Beckett was only 17 years old when Ryanair paid him $20,000 to create the site. By turning to youth and apparent inexperience, Ryanair bought itself a multifunctional, bespoke website for a fraction of the standard industry cost.

There are many people like John Beckett with valuable skills and perspectives at every level of our organizations; we simply need to be willing to listen to them. Reverse mentoring is your key to unlocking that talent.

Turning the Traditional Mentoring Model on Its Head

Reverse mentoring democratizes learning; it takes the right to contribute and advise from the hands of the few and offers it to the many. The mentor is a junior employee and the mentee, a senior member of staff. The traditional approach to learning and development is top-down; reverse mentoring is bottom-up. In changing directions, reverse mentoring can help organizations navigate some of the hierarchical barriers that impede innovation.

The benefits to reverse mentoring are numerous:

  • In a structured manner, senior employees gain access to skills and knowledge that they may have deliberately avoided or simply been unaware of.
  • The process builds loyalty and cohesion.
  • It unlocks hidden talent and discovers new processes and perspectives.
  • Above all, the status quo is challenged.

Ask yourself this question: How many of your senior leaders are fluent in social media and the internet of things? How many understand the nuances of diversity like a 20-something does? How many are culturally aware or know the operating norms of the countries they do business in?

Establishing Ground Rules

Before embarking upon a reverse mentoring program, it’s important to define your objective and agree upon the time frame — for example, 45-minute meetings once each month, for six to eight months.

Every meeting is an opportunity to learn and develop. For instance, a senior leader who would like a greater understanding of social media will not become a “YouTuber” or influencer after one 45-minute session but, perhaps, could become more adept at using his or her Twitter feed. The first meeting could be about basic functionality, and the second meeting could be about posting videos and other content. Reverse mentoring, like traditional mentoring, is about baby steps and creating a shared, respectful and safe learning environment.

In addition to technical skills, reverse mentoring can help senior leaders develop behavioral skills. Kaplan Leadership and Professional Development surveyed more than 800 U.S. professionals with employee supervisory responsibilities. When asked about challenges regarding senior employees, respondents reported the following difficulties:

  • Being slow to change (86%).
  • Being critical of new ways of doing things (83%).
  • Being resistant to new learning, coaching and feedback (81%).
  • Lack of understanding of millennials’ work ethic (62%).
  • Lack of motivation and team building skills (58%).

Organizations can address these significant gaps with reverse mentoring. For example, in relation to engagement with millennials, the mentor could ask questions like these:

  • What do you think was missing at the start of your career?
  • What would you do differently in your career?
  • If you think back to when you started your first job after university, what would you like to tell yourself?
  • If you could do it over again, would you take greater risks with work-life balance — spend more time with your children and have more fun?

Reverse mentoring is not new. In fact, Jack Welch popularized the concept at General Electric in 1999, when he paired 500 of his top executives with junior associates to learn how to use the internet. Twenty years later, few companies have implemented his method. The ones that have are reaping the benefits.