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Considering Reverse Mentoring? Check Out These Tips

A businessman talking to a woman in an office.

​Reverse mentoring is part of a business continuity plan.

That's how Avery M. Blank, J.D., principal and owner of Avery Blank Consulting in Philadelphia, looks at it.

"It's about survival," she said during a panel discussion, "Reverse Mentoring: New Voices, New Visions," on Oct. 19.

The panel was part of the 12th annual National Diversity Women's Business Leadership Conference at the Gaylord Resort at the National Harbor in Maryland.

One way to get buy-in for a reverse mentoring program is to sell the idea as a problem-solving strategy for your organization, Blank advised.

Reverse mentoring can take several forms—a tech-savvy younger employee mentoring a senior leader, for example, or a black woman mentoring a white man about diversity issues.

Katherine Haight, director of learning and development, design, and operations at Target Corp. in Minneapolis, said diversity is the goal of her company's reverse mentoring program.

"We're asking diversity champions at lower levels [of the company] to mentor [people at the] upper levels," said Haight, who attended the conference session.

Because the company's mentors initially lacked support about how to perform their roles, Haight started a group where mentors could share strategies on how to connect with leaders.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Establishing a Mentoring Program in Your Local SHRM Chapter]

Reverse mentoring can be formal or informal, owned by HR or some other department, and designed to last for the long term or for the course of a specific project.

Whatever form reverse mentoring takes, senior leaders must be behind it.

"You need a strong sponsor … [someone who] champions it," Blank said.

Talmesha Richards, Ph.D., chief academic and diversity officer for STEMConnector in Washington, D.C. and one of the panelists, concurred.

Her organization is a consortium concerned with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. It is made up of companies, nonprofit associations, professional societies, STEM-related research and policy organizations, government entities, universities and academic institutions.

There has to be at least one leader, Richards said, who encourages frank conversations around the organization's purpose and mission for reverse mentoring. An organization also has to be clear about what "mentoring" means.

"There is a distinction between mentoring and [giving] feedback," said Minjon Tholen, another panelist. She is a consultant for Cook Ross in Atlanta. The Washington, D.C.-based organization is a female-owned consulting firm specializing in diversity, inclusion, cultural competency, leadership development and organizational change management.

Mentoring "is meant to expand people's skill sets and networks," she pointed out.

Panel members offered the following tips for a successful reverse mentoring program: 

  • Make sure the mentor and mentee are matched appropriately. What knowledge can one person gain from the other? 
         "[Mentees] want to know something they don't know already," Blank said.

  • Make sure the mentor and mentee are both invested in the process.
  • Make sure mentors understand how their mentees add value to the organization. 
  • Be clear on the organization's expectations for both roles and how mentorship aligns with the organization's goals. Is the mentorship designed to teach skills, such as how to use social media? How often does the mentoring take place? Consider training mentors so that they know what expectations to convey to their mentees.
Initially, in-person communication is key when starting a reverse mentoring relationship, the panelists agreed.

"Once you develop that rapport and understand the intentions, then you can start doing more of the distance-type [mentoring]," such as communicating by phone or Skype, Blank said.

Tom Murray, senior vice president of HR global sales and marketing for Dell Technologies, noted during the luncheon talk at the conference that he has learned a lot from his diversity mentor, a black woman.

"They're a lot of guys like me out there that want to advocate for women," he said. "Some of us just don't know any better. I did a lot of dumb things."

He noted, for example, that after he suggested taking a group of women to the ballpark for team building, his mentor advised him to consider an activity more in line with the interests of the women in the group.

Tholen advised thinking about your reason for introducing reverse mentorship.

"Are you looking to have knowledge transfer? Seeking [generational input] because of the changing market space?" she asked.

It's important to figure out how to set up your program, she noted, so that it resonates with your organization and positions mentors and mentees for success.   

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