As a general rule, influence and age enjoy a positive correlation in business. The more influence someone has, the more likely they are to be older.

In today's ever-changing world, where generational gaps increasingly feel greater than ever, those who are making the biggest business calls are becoming aware that they simply don't know enough about how their new and future customers (ie the young) think.

This has led to the increasing popularity of reverse mentoring, in which a younger member of staff gets time with someone senior in order to bring their perspectives.

But does reverse mentoring work?

Let's look at both sides to the argument.

Reverse mentoring has a lot going for it.

  1. There's inherent value in hearing the insights that can only come from someone from a different generation and background. Who knows how younger generations like to be engaged better than the younger generations?
  2. There's also power in something relatively simple like this to act as a catalyst for culture change. A traditional organisation with a strict hierarchy that implements reverse mentoring will experience a natural flattening of that hierarchy as both participants realise that the other is more like them than they may first have realised.
  3. Reverse mentoring acts as a much more personal way to cascade business vision and strategy. A conversation with someone senior increases buy-in far more than a propaganda-like strategy document.
  4. And at its most basic level, the senior person gets access to more information he or she wouldn't have had otherwise, and that aids in decision making.

But there are also some issues with reverse mentoring.

  1. The reverse mentoring model uses one person to speak for an entire generation. Everyone is unique, so that's a significant weakness. Arguably, a survey would produce better quality information.
  2. As well as acting as increasing buy-in from the younger generations, it can seriously backfire from the 'forgotten middle', who feel disempowered by it. Those managers who have been around too long to be considered the young, but not long enough to have any influence, are given an excuse to lose motivation.
  3. Finally, in most cases it could be seen as yet another fiction. In reality, the young person doesn't have any real influence; they have a conversation with someone senior, but the older person still calls all the shots. If they choose to overlook some advice, or forget it, or get different advice from elsewhere, that empowering conversation could simply 'prove' that the whole thing is a veneer on the stuck, hierarchical organisation.

So is reverse mentoring a good idea?

Every environment is going to be different, so it's going to be a question of horses for courses. That caveat given, I'm led to believe that the downsides can be addressed, through:

  • supporting reverse mentoring with surveys
  • actively engaging middle management
  • providing senior leaders with coaching to address unconscious bias and limiting assumptions

And an easier way to do it would be to introduce a skilled and independent coach to help remove any blocks in the moment.

The truth is that many organisations are experiencing a need to adapt to generational and societal shifts, and leadership is fundamental. If reverse mentoring is a tool to aid leaders on that journey, let's embrace it.