Reverse Mentorship Poses Opportunities, Challenges

Focusing on the strengths rather than experience of less-senior members can create a work environment that encourages growth, mutual trust, and collaboration.

By Alina Bartley, SWE Editorial Board

Picture this situation: You are instituted as the leader of a project that must be kicked off the week you start. You do not have time to waste because the leader you just replaced was inefficient and you do not have experience with the subject matter. You do, however, have a junior resource who is an expert in that subject area.

This describes the perfect application of reverse mentorship.

The traditional mentorship program combines a seasoned employee or executive leader with a junior mentee who is eager to learn. Reverse mentorship flips that relationship to allow the junior employee to become the mentor and teach the seasoned leader.

Becoming a mentee

As you grow in your career, the opportunity to receive feedback naturally diminishes. Early on, you will receive feedback — solicited or not — from mentors, co-workers, managers, managers’ managers, third parties, and others. But as you progress, the number of willing and able feedback providers typically decreases. Instead, you begin to manage other people, have fewer peers, or your manager does not directly understand what you do. It is extremely easy to disconnect and develop knowledge or skill gaps. Even when you are open and ask your team for feedback, they may often shy away for fear of retribution.

Therefore, a benefit of having a reverse mentorship is access to a junior who can be honest with you. Although a junior is generally someone with less organizational experience, who may be much younger, they can point out how your leadership style affects your direct reports. They can teach you how to use new tools or technology. They can comment on your organization’s culture and suggest solutions.

To become an effective mentee, you may need a mindset adjustment. If you are already humble, extremely self-aware, and uncompetitive, this will be easy to do, although these qualities are not always inherent.

Although a junior is generally someone with less organizational experience, who may be much younger, they can point out how your leadership style affects your direct reports.

If serving in the role of a reverse mentor, consider the following:

Focus on the subject matter
As you receive feedback from a junior mentor, if your mind wanders to questions such as, “How can I trust something a 22-year-old right out of university, with no experience at our company, tells me?” Follow that with an assessment of their credentials on the topic. Did they have internships working in the area they are speaking about? Have they listened to podcasts and read books on the subject? Separate the person’s demographics and experience level from the information they are providing.

Put ego aside
Here is your reminder that you do not know everything about everything. Low self-awareness is indicative of an unchecked ego and leads to an inability to know what you do not know. In the example provided earlier, the leader being replaced did not take advantage of the subject matter from a direct report, despite their attempt to provide advice. Delays in starting the project eventually led to this leader’s being replaced.

In another example, my colleague Sarah Meissner, who was asked for feedback from a team leader about the leader’s project performance, found it difficult to provide feedback that the leader would accept. Meissner is currently a corporate performance improvement manager with Alvarez and Marsal.

Of this experience, Meissner said, “I came prepared to deliver the feedback … with three strengths and three areas for improvements and specific examples for each one. Upon getting to the first area for improvement, the leader became very defensive and dismissed my feedback as being differences in style. I continued through the remaining areas and clung to the facts and examples, even describing how I felt by this leader’s behavior … I don’t know if the leader learned anything that day, but my hope is that they were able to see the things they did well and better themselves within their own style. We can all make each other better regardless of title.”

Becoming a mentor

From Meissner’s perspective, becoming a reverse mentor poses inherent challenges that can be addressed by considering the following suggestions:

Take a backseat
In the situation described earlier, the reverse mentor may have a tendency to jump in during group discussions and undermine the leader, who must look like an expert in a subject matter, despite not yet being one. Meissner, who has served in this expert role several times, said, “It’s critical that the expert is not the only one displaying expertise on the topic; the lines between expert and [project] owner can easily blur with others.”

Develop a relationship focused on strengths
Both mentee and mentor must understand the skill sets and expertise each has and realize that one is not more valuable than the other because of their expertise. Each brings to the table different qualities and knowledge that provide unique value to the larger team and objective. This does not diminish the value that others bring.

Focusing on how this relationship can be symbiotic will help you see this as less of a competition or threat and help both parties grow and mature into this new dynamic.

Alina Bartley (she/her) is a director with Alvarez and Marsal, assisting clients with supply chain management solutions. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and from The University of Texas at Austin with an MBA. A SWE member since 2009, Bartley has enjoyed working as a leader within her local Houston Area Section and with collegians at the global level. She currently serves on the editorial board.