Why Reverse Mentoring Works and How to Do it Right

By Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell
November 18, 2019

Many companies struggle with how to retain millennial talent — and how to stay relevant to younger consumers. In response, leadership teams of major companies around the world are implementing reverse-mentoring programs.

Mark Tibergien, CEO of Advisor Solutions, knew BNY-Mellon/Pershing had a problem. Millennials were uninterested in working in financial services. In addition, millennials who did join the company were leaving at higher rates than their older peers.

Many companies struggle with how to retain millennial talent — and how to stay relevant to younger consumers. In response, leadership teams of major companies around the world are implementing reverse-mentoring programs. Reverse mentoring pairs younger employees with executive team members to mentor them on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance.

We found four main benefits of reverse-mentoring programs.

INCREASED RETENTION OF MILLENNIALS. Reverse-mentoring programs provide millennials with the transparency and recognition they’re seeking from management. The former CEO of BNY-Mellon/Pershing, Ron DeChicco, and his millennial mentor, Jamilynn Camino, co-developed fireside chats. In these chats, which ran for over three years and were the most highly attended company event, DeChicco discussed critical issues and solicited employee feedback. BNY-Mellon/Pershing experienced a 96 percent retention rate for the first cohort of millennial mentors.

SHARING OF DIGITAL SKILLS. While digital skill development should not be the focus of a reverse-mentoring program, many companies mentioned it was a meaningful part of the relationship. The current CEO of BNY-Mellon/Pershing (then COO) used his mentor to help him with social media. Now, he is one of the most avid social-media users inside the company.

DRIVING CULTURE CHANGE. Fabrizio Freda, Estée Lauder’s CEO, implemented a reverse-mentoring program. Besides educating senior executives on the importance of social media influencers for the overall shopping experience, millennial mentors developed Dreamspace, a knowledge-sharing portal to exchange ideas.

PROMOTING DIVERSITY. In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers launched its reverse-mentoring program as part of its drive for diversity and inclusion. The program now has 122 millennials mentoring 200 partners and directors worldwide.

Try following these points to realize the benefits of reverse mentoring:

THE RIGHT MATCH IS CRUCIAL. First, emphasize diversity, matching across region, department and location. Also match for diverse personalities. Second, consult mentees before making the pairing formal. While most millennial mentors accepted any pairing (as long as the mentee was committed), executive mentees were more selective, as they were concerned about crossing supervisory lines and any appearance of conflict of interest.

ADDRESS MENTEES’ FEAR AND DISTRUST. Many executives are fearful of revealing their lack of knowledge to junior employees. But if these fears are addressed explicitly, open sharing can be incredibly rewarding. Many mentees are also fearful of junior employees sharing sensitive information with co-workers. However, breach of confidentiality was never a problem we could discern.

ENSURE STRONG COMMITMENT FROM THE MENTEES. The number one reason that reverse-mentoring programs fail is that the executives don’t prioritize the relationship; after a couple of cancelled sessions, the momentum quickly dwindles. It’s the millennial mentors who should drive the program through sharing best practices, helping to select new cohorts and training mentors.

DON’T MIX A SHADOW BOARD AND REVERSE-MENTORING PROGRAM. Another method for integrating millennials into the organization is shadow boards. Some companies tried to introduce both programs within a single cohort. This led to one or the other winning out; they were never simultaneously successful.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

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