Reverse mentoring: Is it right for IT?

Reverse mentoring turns the traditional age-based approach on its head. Here's how it could benefit your IT team
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Most IT leaders would agree that our industry doesn’t need another new buzzword. But in HR, IT, and business leadership circles, the term reverse mentoring is gaining steam. Could a reverse mentoring program benefit your organization? Let’s dig in a bit, because this idea isn't always implemented the way you might guess.

What is reverse mentoring?

As the term suggests, reverse mentoring flips the traditional model in which an executive or older employee advises a younger, less experienced one. Instead, the younger person teaches the older person a new trick or three. This is often described in a technology context as a way for older execs and managers to stay plugged into to the latest and greatest gadgets and apps that younger people are using.

Here’s an excerpt from the consultancy Art of Mentoring’s definition: “Rather than having a senior player take a less experienced player ‘under their wing,’ reverse mentoring relationships place the more senior person as the primary learner and emphasize the experience of the junior person. The objective of reverse mentoring is primarily to enable leaders and senior managers to stay in touch with their organizations and the outside world. But the advantages go both ways as more junior personnel have an opportunity to understand and be heard by more senior and experienced people.”

[ For more on the value of diverse thinking in the workplace, see At Arbella, new graduates fuel IT culture change success. ]

Reverse mentoring is not a new idea. The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2011 titled “Reverse Mentoring Cracks the Workplace.” Since then, the concept has gained momentum: A recent Society of Human Resource Management article recaps a recent “reverse internship” program at RBC Wealth Management, and the HR trade group has a wealth of other content on reverse mentoring. In our recent article, How to build more diverse IT teams: 3 strategies, CEO Coco Brown of the Athena Alliance advocates for reverse mentoring as a way to build understanding among individuals on teams.

Benefits behind the buzzword

VM Brasseur, an open source expert and technical management consultant, acknowledges that reverse mentoring indeed sounds like a buzzword. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t substance behind the idea.

“When you get right down to it, reverse mentoring is just mentoring. Mentoring is taking the opportunity to learn from someone else,” Brasseur says. “The knowledge in a mentoring relationship usually goes from senior (mentor) to junior (mentee). Reverse mentoring is just a fancy way of saying that the seniors have plenty to learn from the juniors, if only they'll take the chance to do so.”

Laura Hilliger, a writer, educator and technologist, says she is leery of the phrase “reverse mentoring.” She notes that we generally assume a lot about age when we hear the word “mentoring” – i.e., there’s an old person and a young person – but that colloquial definition is inaccurate at best.

“There’s no age indication inherent to the word, and it seems kind of ageist to think of a mentor as ‘old’ and a mentee as ‘young,’” Hilliger notes.

The ideas behind reverse mentoring can have significant value for your IT organization. But you might need a bit of a reboot in terms of how you define and implement this kind of learning and professional development practice.

“When you get right down to it, reverse mentoring is just mentoring. Mentoring is taking the opportunity to learn from someone else.”

“Mentoring is an extremely important feature of any successful career,” Hilliger points out. “I think a program that considers both mentor and mentee in the matching process would be most successful for everyone involved.”

Again, most definitions of reverse mentoring flip the traditional hierarchical approach to a mentor-mentee relationship. But what if you simply dump hierarchy and age as the fundamental criteria?

Hilliger advises pairing people based on skills and experience rather than than job titles or age; similarly, consider making mentoring a two-way street in which both people are learners as well as teachers.

“We’re social creatures, so creating a dynamic that puts both participants in the mentoring role would ultimately benefit both employees and the organization better than being pedantic about who’s the mentor versus mentee,” Hilliger says. “As an example, while one party might mentor in technical skills, the other might have advice or counsel on business [and] political skills.”

Indeed, John Marcante, CIO and Managing Director of Vanguard's IT Division, has written that his group tried a reverse mentoring program, but it faded away in favor of mentoring programs that focus on two-way learning. "What we found was that all mentoring relationships provide an opportunity for two-way learning, not just the ones labeled as “reverse mentorships. So with our mentoring program, we made it an explicit goal to have the relationship serve as a forum for learning both for the mentor and the mentee." (See our related article by Marcante, The best IT mentorships are a two-way street.)

Avoid the IT specialist bubble

There's another positive benefit of taking a more organic, skills-based approach – one that may be especially valuable for IT pros, Brasseur says. “As a person rises through the ranks of an organization, they tend to become very specialized: Optimize this process; be a guru in that software; have an encyclopedic knowledge of those other markets,” she says. “While this is valuable, it can lead to blind spots, echo chambers, and stifled innovation.”

Mentoring based on varied backgrounds, work experience, and skill sets – technical and otherwise – can help reduce the very real issues that often hamstring an IT team.

“Taking the time to listen to people with different perspectives can open your eyes to new options, new possibilities, and new approaches you may not have noticed had you stayed in your specialist bubble,” Brasseur explains.

At a time when traditional IT roles and responsibilities are being disrupted and IT shops are increasingly asked to become strategic drivers of business goals instead of just service-and-support organizations, that learning opportunity should appeal to IT pros. 

“Perhaps giving it (reverse mentoring) a trendy label is what's necessary to get more experienced people to pause and consider that maybe mentoring can be a two-way street, beneficial to both parties,” Brasseur muses.

Stay tuned: In upcoming posts, we’ll examine ideas for how to implement a reverse mentoring program and offer tips for success.

Also read: How to succeed with reverse mentoring: 7 steps

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.