ManpowerGroup predicts that the workforce will look decidedly younger in 2020, with a generational picture that breaks down to 6% baby boomer, 35% Gen X, 35% millennial and 24% Gen Z. That means that more than half of the workforce will be younger than 40 in 2020. 

Organizations are scrambling to find ways to attract and retain these young workers. Many companies turn to traditional mentoring to help develop their young talent – and for good reason. Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey found that younger employees intending to stay with their organization for more than five years were twice as likely to have a mentor. Additionally, DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018 report showed that mentoring can reduce turnover and create higher leader quality overall. 

Yet, traditional mentoring only tells part of the story. Many innovative organizations are exploring reverse mentoring: a method that takes mentoring and flips it on its head. In reverse mentoring, the mentee is the older, more senior leader, while the mentor is the more junioroften younger, employee. This is appealing to organizations and younger employees because it allows younger employees to step into the expert role and show off their skills and knowledge to people in leadership positions. 

More and more companies are exploring this unique style of mentoring for a variety of reasons, such as:  

  • Offering a way for younger employees to share their knowledge and unique perspectives with leaders. 
  • Assisting executives and leaders with timely learning needs surrounding topics such as new technologies, generational issues, and diversity and inclusion efforts. 
  • Helping improve employee engagement and retention overall. 

With a senior employee as the mentee and a junior employee as the mentor, there may be some inherent discomfort for the people in these roles. A senior executive may struggle with taking advice from someone who is lower in the organizational hierarchy. On the flip side, a more junior or younger employee may not feel comfortable giving feedback or challenging the thinking of someone who could potentially harm their career. 

Companies that want to implement reverse mentoring successfully need to ensure they launch the program with a clear purpose and explicit rules of engagement that mentees and mentors are aware of and respectWith that in mind, here are five rules of engagement that will help mentees and mentors participate in reverse mentoring with confidence, care and consideration. 

Rule #1: Set Guidelines 

A good mentoring relationship has boundaries, meaning there is an agreed upon understanding between the mentee and mentor of what the relationship is and what it is not. Establishing these parameters should be a priority for mentoring pairs; this can also be an opportunity for mentoring program administrators to help their participants define what the mentoring relationship should look like. For example, maybe the mentoring program is set up so that each pair focuses on helping the executive learn about social media or identifying and leveraging a millennial viewpoint on work-related topics. 

Defining this purpose will give mentees and mentors a clear picture of what they should expect of their mentoring relationship and time together. This creates an understanding of why they are meeting with one another and can help them focus their time and efforts accordingly. Developing this common purpose, along with broader relationship guidelines, will also help mentees and mentors explicitly state how they will hold one another accountable and what information needs to remain confidential within the relationship.

Holding a superior accountable might feel uncomfortable for a junior mentor, but accountability is at the heart of all good mentoring relationships. Mentees need to be held accountable for their actions, promises and commitments. It does not do anyone any good to have a mentee who does not follow through on their tasks or responsibilities. The mentor must make sure their mentee follows through as needed. Setting clear expectations and agreeing to hold one another accountable needs to be discussed upfront. 

Rule #2: Respect One Another 

Having respect for one another is a hallmark of any great mentoring relationship. Respect is demonstrated in how the pair speaks to one another, listens to one another, and treats one another and their relationship. Without respect, mentoring pairs may not give or receive feedback in the spirit it is intended or won’t believe the best of one another if one falls short of a commitment. However, when respect is present, the mentee and mentor can confidently address issues as they arise. 

Keep in mind: With respect comes trust. When a mentee or mentor knows their partner is open to giving and receiving feedback, learning from or teaching their partner, and acting with the best intentions, they build trust in them. This trust may not come easily, but it is essential for a mentoring relationship to work.  

Rule #3: Learn How to Give and Receive Feedback 

As mentioned in terms of respect, it is vital that mentees and mentors know how to give and receive feedback. This is particularly important in a reverse mentoring relationship. Many executives are accustomed to issuing orders but not taking feedback. It may be even harder when that feedback comes from a lower level employee. In the same vein, it might be difficult for the junior mentor to give their mentee (i.e., their CEO or vice president) feedback. No one wants to say the wrong thing or make a bad impression on person in power who can make their work life difficult or push them out of a job. 

The whole point of reverse mentoring is for the junior mentor to help the senior mentee learn. Part of that learning experience requires giving feedback, as well as listening to that feedback. To make this less awkward, mentees and mentors should put in writing that they will strive to be honest, fair, compassionate and candid when giving and receiving feedback. This will give them the opportunity to talk through and create a process that works for themMentees and mentors who trust and respect one another will find it easier to listen to their partner without judgment. 

Rule #4: Be Authentic 

Authenticity goes hand-in-hand with trust. When people trust their mentoring partner, they can be more open and genuine with them. And by being open and genuine, trust is established because their partner accepts their authentic selves. It’s a cyclical pattern that creates a positive connection 

Being authentic can mean anything from speaking up about the issues that matter to them and showing their sense of humor while at work to sharing parts of their personal story in order to foster a connection with their mentee or mentor. When people present themselves with sincerity, they form a stronger bond and foundation for their mentoring relationship, and they create a richer mentoring experience for themselves and their partners. 

Rule #5: Set Goals 

Most mentoring relationships focus on the goals that the mentee sets and works toward accomplishing. Mentors will need to agree that the goals are ideal for the relationship, which can be tricky for junior mentors in reverse mentoring. They may not feel suited to voice their opinions on what the executive mentee’s goals should be. Some mentoring program administrators set up goals for the pairs in the form of an overarching mentoring program goal, such as having the executive learn about a new technology. Having a program goal as the basis for the relationship can help individual mentees and mentors gain a clear focus on where they can set additional or interrelated objectives 

When setting mentoring goals, it is important that both parties have a voice. This can offer a great opportunity for mentees and mentors to practice authenticity, respect, listening, confidence and many other behaviors that will be necessary throughout the relationship. Goals can also be adjusted over time, which means mentoring partners need to have solid lines of communication open in order to evaluate ideas, assess progress and make changes as needed. 

Reverse mentoring is a trend with staying power, as well as a fantastic way to share knowledge. There are many senior leaders out there who could use mentoring and plenty of junior employees out there who are willing to share what they know. And for all the mentoring program administrators out there, your reverse mentoring program can be a positive experience for all involved by helping your participants understand what is expected of them, the goal of the program, the focus of the relationship and the best techniques for managing the relationship.