By Leah Fessler
"These days, executives know the least about what we need to build a healthy, progressive organization," says Jennifer Brown, CEO and Founder of Jennifer Brown Consulting. "We are the ones who need to be mentored."
The concept of reverse mentorship has been around for a while, but it's often misunderstood or oversimplified. Reverse mentoring isn't young people teaching execs how to use social media, or telling them what they're doing wrong, says Brown, who led Chief's recent Beyond the Statement intensive DEI workshop.
Instead, reverse mentoring should be a formal program sponsored by a key executive, ideally the CEO, wherein senior leaders are matched with junior colleagues for regular, structured mentorship meetings and relationship building. In these reverse mentorship meetings, junior talent can share their organizational experiences and ideas for business development, while leaders can benefit from skip-level exposure, and go deeper on concepts or perspectives they may be less familiar with due to generational or identity divides.
The goals of reverse mentoring are multifaceted, says Brown, including increasing the visibility for diverse emerging talent, retaining millennial and Gen Z employees, and perhaps at large, the survival of your business.
By 2030, over 75% of employees are projected to be millennials, with Gen Z close behind. While some forward-thinking organizations have laid the groundwork for this generation and their changes in expectations, work styles, and values, most companies are behind, as Brown writes in a BNY Mellon Pershing report on the future of mentorship. Despite negative stereotypes, millennials and Gen Z's needs can be understood through a simple framework, says Brown: they need to be welcomed, valued, respected, and heard — in their personal lives, politics, and especially at work.
"A key fact distinguishing millennials from other generational groups is their prioritization of well-being and growth. Known as the 'why' generation, they have grown up accustomed to being able to get answers right away, due to their technological savviness," writes Brown. "In the workplace, this has taken the form of their unusually strong voice and advocacy for themselves and their viewpoints. A very real disconnect emerges when we contrast this with how stratified and layered the bureaucracy is in most companies."
A Deloitte study finds that if given the option, millennials would quit their current jobs to work at different organizations if their desire for personal and professional development were not met. For context, the cost of losing a successful employee after a year ranges between 1.5 to 3 times their annual salary depending on seniority.
Adapting to facilitate these values is key to retaining talent. Reverse mentorship is one of the most direct and effective ways to bridge the gap — allowing younger talent to share what they need to be successful. It's also a powerful means to elevate employees from overlooked demographics.
"We know that in most organizations, racial diversity is like a triangle, with the bottom third being the most diverse," says Brown. "Beyond reading books and attending workshops, leaders can activate themselves by sitting down with a junior employee at their organization who is not a straight, white, cis man and listening to their experiences without judgment or interjection — the microaggressions they experience every day, the changes that would make them feel more supported or successful." While sometimes painful to hear, leaders need to consider these organizational dynamics when crafting strategy; if they don't, sexism and racism intensifies.
Our "cone of silence," as Brown calls it, is a business risk. You need diverse perspectives around the table to build the best products and services — anticipating, rather than reacting to future trends, says Brown. Non-white, non-male Americans are the fastest growing commercial demographic with the largest buying power. Your appeal to diverse customers and clients depends on your ability to internally integrate perspectives from the non-white, non-male majority.
In her BNY Mellon Pershing report, Brown lays out a comprehensive plan for implementing reverse mentoring, inclusive of KPIs and stakeholders. But if you, like many of us, lack the resources to immediately implement a new program, it's best to start small.
"Don't wait for HR to give you a program in a box," says Brown. "Go organic. If you're a senior leader, you should have a stable of mentees already. First, notice who's missing, and diversify. Then try switching roles for a few months. Have some fun with it. Encourage the leaders on your working team to join you. There's increased psychological safety in numbers."
If you have employee resource groups, partner with them to strategically match leaders and employees. Even if you're starting small, it's essential to ensure no one is being tokenized. A neutral third party, likely HR, should be in the loop so any urgent matters can be confidentially handled. Most importantly, don't assume you know the best way to set this experiment up.
"Intersectionality is key, and I would definitely let the diverse, junior talent drive the process to the extent they are interested," says Brown. "Even if you introduce the idea of reverse mentoring, you need to center diverse voices, empowering those who have less organizational influence to lead this initiative."
Ask your colleagues what would be most valuable if they were to spend an hour with a senior executive every two weeks. What might be on the agenda? What content would be helpful to read in advance? Don't assume you have all the answers. Let the process be built by those who are not building elsewhere. Once structure is in place, it's your responsibility to champion it.
Read Jennifer Brown’s full report on reverse mentorship here.
Originally Published: August 24, 2020