Turn The Tables On Talent

Two weeks ago, I went to Bali to speak at a conference of HR professionals and executives from all around Indonesia. In addition to a keynote presentation to the entire group, I also ran a small invitation-only executive masterclass for senior leaders, sharing ideas about how they could be more future-ready in their roles.

In a session like this, people get the chance to ask me very specific questions. And the question that got the most interest and traction from the group was this one, from a senior HR leader from one of Indonesia’s largest companies:

‘It’s good to come to a conference like this to think differently. But how do we keep challenging ourselves after we get back to our everyday work lives?’

There are many good answers to that question, but the single most useful practice I’ve recommended is reverse mentoring. It’s an incredibly valuable tool that’s easy to do but most organisations just don’t use right now.

Turn the tables on talent.

You might already have a mentoring program in your workplace, but do you embrace reverse mentoring? Most people I ask say No, even if they have traditional mentoring programs in place.

In a nutshell: With reverse mentoring, the more junior people in an organisation provide the mentoring for more senior staff.

For example, Janet Wilson, CEO of Brisbane law firm Cooper Grace Ward, has an agreement with younger members of her firm to mentor her every month. She says:

‘The conversations are inspirational, sometimes worrying, and always refreshing! I make them as casual and friendly as possible. We have fun and lots of laughs… at each other’s expense!’

With a traditional mentoring arrangement, the more experienced, more senior, (usually) older person shares their experience with more junior people to fast-track their development. The mentor offers something – their experience – that nothing else can provide, and in turn that helps the mentoree build their judgement and eventually gain wisdom.

Reverse mentoring turns this idea on its head. This time it’s the more junior person in the mentor role, and their biggest contribution is perspective rather than experience.

Think of ‘junior’ in three ways: younger in age, newer in the organisation, or newer in your industry or profession. All three bring different perspectives and ideas.

Being junior doesn’t mean they have less experience or expertise – far from it. They often do have more expertise – for example, younger people know more about social media, mobile devices, and technology in general. But don’t stop at those obvious areas – they also might have expertise in other areas – such as:

  • Consumer behaviour: They know how people of their generation buy.
  • Recruitment: You can find new staff through their networks.
  • Talent management: They value different things from a workplace.
  • Money: They have different attitudes towards saving, wealth, and retirement.
  • Ownership: They might rather rent than buy (houses, cars, music, books, etc.).
  • Skills: They have acquired skills from other jobs, careers, and industries.
  • ESG: They think differently about environmental, social, and governance issues in teams and organisations.

But their biggest contribution is their different perspective on the world, which helps senior people shake up their established viewpoints, which are often difficult to break down by themselves.

It cuts both ways.

If you’re the more senior person, reverse mentoring accelerates your learning curve, gives your team members new opportunities, enhances morale, boosts productivity, and creates a closer team.

The Hartford, a financial services group in the USA, leveraged the power of reverse mentoring to reach a new kind of customer, understand the new workforce, and improve their bottom line. Across the organisation, 50 mentoring pairs participated in the program, and they achieved outstanding results:

  • 97% of the mentorees (the senior people, remember) rated it extremely effective for their personal development.
  • Just as importantly, 11 of the 12 mentors (the more junior people) in the project’s first wave were promoted within a year.
  • For bottom line results, the business implemented new business practices that saved time and money, increased social media engagement, and boosted internal knowledge within teams.

If you’re not doing this already, engage a smart, savvy, more junior person to be your reverse mentor for the next three months. Listen to their insights, follow their advice, and resist the temptation to think you are smarter just because you’re older, senior, and more experienced.

Then extend the concept of reverse mentoring to other parts of your organisation, so everybody has the opportunity to be involved in it.

Thinking Ahead

  • Who could be your reverse mentor at work?
  • Who among your peers could you connect with your more junior team members (with the junior people as the mentors)?
  • How are you using reverse mentoring in your personal life (with your own children or other young people)?


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