Moving Forward with Reverse Mentoring


By Kyla Nicholson


Experience, expertise and character, not age, are the qualifications for mentor status; yet traditional views and stereotypes tend to depict mentors as the older and wiser participants in mentoring relationships.


In the context of such perceptions, the term ‘reverse mentoring’ has emerged, referring to mentoring in which the seasoned veteran is the mentee rather than the mentor. As the mix of generations in the workplace becomes increasingly diverse, organizations’ interest in reverse mentoring has increased. 

Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

While reverse mentoring is most commonly considered a tool to increase the technical savvy of older generations, it also has demonstrated benefits for:

§  Expanding professional networks and increasing awareness of up and coming performers;

§  Ensuring current knowledge of industry culture and trends;

§  Creating openness to new ideas and perspectives;

§  Renewing passion for performance;

§  Building cross-cultural understanding in an increasingly diverse workforce;

§  Bridging generational gaps; and

§  Recognizing young mentors’ strengths and preparing them to take on leadership roles in the future.

Barriers to Success

Despite these benefits, there are many barriers for eager “reverse” mentors and mentees to overcome. These include:

§  Difficulties or perceived difficulties identifying with each other;

§  Failures to recognize that different values, protocols, or senses of humour exist;

§  A tendency to view the relationship as fragile, and therefore be guarded in interactions;

§  Mentee concern about how the relationship will be viewed by peers and other senior employees; and

§  Traditional views or stereotypes regarding who holds the expertise in organizations.

Overcoming Obstacles

For reverse mentoring programs to succeed, the obstacles to program success must be directly addressed. This is done through purposeful messaging, setting clear expectations, creating enabling structures, and ensuring ongoing organizational support:

§  Challenge traditional perceptions or assumptions about mentoring by clearly defining and communicating the purpose of the reverse mentoring program. The purpose is to use internal strengths and expertise to build the knowledge, skills and/or behaviours needed to drive the organizational strategy and secure the organization’s future.

§  Establish clear criteria for the selection of mentors and mentees that support the organization’s need to target and build meaningful relationships that will develop talent in ways that align with the program’s overall purpose. Key considerations are:

·         What knowledge, skills, and behaviours are required?

·         Who will need the knowledge, skills, and behaviours?

·         Who already has the knowledge, skills, and behaviours?

·         Who is open to the experience?

·         Who will champion the experience within the organization?

§  Dispel participant concerns about how to behave or interact in the context of the reverse mentoring relationship. Define expectations for participants and provide structures and tools that support mentors and mentees to establish goals and build mutually agreeable guidelines for open and honest interactions.

§  Recognize that relationship-based developmental experiences, such as those found in reverse mentoring programs, require skilful participation to illicit results. Provide training to enable mentors and mentees to understand the requirements of the program, participate effectively in the mentoring relationship, and overcome challenges to success.

§  Measure program success,  identify needed refinements, and make adjustments to support the program to achieve its intended purpose.

§  Use leaders, young and old, and organizational values to hold mentors, mentees and others across the organization accountable for supporting your reverse mentoring program’s purpose and ongoing success.

As with all mentoring relationships, the foundation for reverse mentoring lies in pairing someone with more experience and expertise with someone with less experience and expertise for the purpose of learning, feedback, and development. The secret to success is in providing the structures, messaging and reinforcement needed to break stereotypes about who holds this experience and expertise within organizations.

Kyla Nicholson, CHRP Candidate, is the Manager of Professional Development at BC HRMA. Kyla is committed to providing high-quality learning opportunities that build the capabilities and the organizational impact of HR practitioners. She also sits on the editorial committee and writes for PeopleTalk Magazine. 

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