How reverse mentoring works

Pairing senior executives with junior colleagues can have benefits beyond sharpening skills and expanding knowledge.
How reverse mentoring works

Reverse mentoring can help finance departments modernise with new technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and even improve diversity and inclusion, say finance leaders and experts knowledgeable about the practice.

Reverse mentoring involves pairing senior executives as mentees to high-performing junior colleagues as mentors. Each person then trades skills, behaviours, and management insights.

While traditional mentoring has been around longer, reverse mentoring is arguably only 20 years old. It was notably popularised by General Electric CEO and Chairman Jack Welch, who in his inimitable style described it as “tipping the organisation upside down”.

Welch reportedly established GE’s mentoring scheme in the 1990s to share knowledge about the internet across generations. More recently, companies such as Cisco, Target, and BNP Paribas Personal Finance have begun running reverse mentoring programmes.

Today’s finance leaders are faced with an overwhelming volume of tools claiming to deliver innovations in areas such as process automation, business intelligence, and payments processing. Digital natives can help executives sift through options, to implement changes with real results.

This was the experience of Kunwar Chadha, FCMA, CGMA, the CFO of ChannelSight, an Ireland-based e-commerce technology company.

“At my current role at ChannelSight, we recently developed robotic process automation that saved us five days of accounting grunt work per month,” Chadha said. “The idea for this came from a younger acquaintance. Although this wasn’t a formal reverse mentoring scenario, I can certainly see the benefit of setting up structured processes for this in organisations.”

At Unilever France, reverse mentoring has been used to improve agile thinking at the board level, said Erdinc Ucan, ACMA, CGMA, the company’s former finance vice-president in the country.

“The change is so fast in every single area so that external awareness has never been so vital for any organisation,” said Ucan. “Topics such as digital technology, social media, changing trends, emerging businesses, and risks remain more on the radar of younger people, who with reverse mentoring can update senior teams and trigger and lead internal change programmes.”

Reverse mentoring may be one method of retaining Millennial staff. Almost half of this generation plan to spend less than two years in their current job, according to the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019. When asked why they plan to leave, Millennial employees list lack of professional development and advancement high on their list of reasons.

While lessening staff attrition and improving technological savvy has led many companies to first consider reverse mentoring, others are looking at it to help improve wider organisational and cultural issues. The UK’s Foreign Office, for example, has created a reverse mentoring programme for ethnic minorities, with the goal to address unrepresentative rates of career progression and create a more diverse diplomatic service.

3 tips to get reverse mentoring right

But programmes are unlikely to deliver the right results if participants are prepared poorly, mismatched, or working on behaviours that are not linked to clear company strategy. Getting it wrong can waste resources, time, and funds.

Leadership experts and consultants suggest a range of ways to ensure reverse mentoring programmes work for everyone involved.

Bring different professionals together. Ideally, reverse mentors should be high-potential individuals whose gender, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity is different to their mentee. That is the advice of Ian Dodds, a UK-based consultant in leadership, diversity, and inclusion.

Dodds said reverse mentors need to be trained to give their senior mentee the feedback they have asked for and to explain how their role-modelling behaviours are working to drive their strategy.

“[Reverse mentors] also make suggestions, using their observations of the person in real business situations, about what their mentee needs to do more of, and less of, to be a more effective role model,” Dodds said.

Train both people beforehand. Jennifer Jordan, a professor in leadership and organisational behaviour at IMD Business School in Switzerland, has researched reverse mentoring with her IMD colleague, Michael Sorrell. Jordan said training mentors is crucial to reverse mentoring’s prospects for success.

Reverse mentors will likely need guidance on practicalities like how to structure sessions with senior leaders, how to keep confidentiality, and how to effectively share best practice. “We found that companies that accompanied the [reverse mentoring] programme with training had a higher chance of programme success,” Jordan said.

Put the emphasis on learning. For Julie Nyanjom, a lecturer in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University in Australia, greater adoption of reverse mentoring is a reflection of how learning is changing.

“Traditional mentoring — the expectation that mentors should be older and mentees younger — is no longer tenable,” Nyanjom said. “Lifelong learning means people will be learning new things all through their lives, regardless of their chronological age or status within the organisation. Just like other spheres of life, mentoring practice should be inclusive.”

Unilever’s Ucan agrees. “Each organisation needs a culture of learning from each other,” he said.

Luke O'Neill is a freelance writer based in Australia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at