How to succeed with reverse mentoring: 7 steps

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You’ve wrapped your head around a reverse mentoring program and see plenty of upside for your IT team. It sounds like a good idea, one that aligns with your vision and goals. But you’re a technologist first, not an organizational behavior expert or HR pro. How do you actually start and run a reverse mentoring program?

Let’s start with the basics: There’s no single, uniform approach. If someone tells you there is, you should probably ignore them. By any name, a mentoring or reverse mentoring program can be customized – to pretty much whatever you want it to be.

That said, getting people to buy in and participate – and then giving the program the best possible chance to create positive impacts over time – is not a given. As a result, you’re going to want to take some thoughtful steps to foster a successful reverse mentoring program.

With that in mind, let’s identify some fundamental strategies that you can customize to your own organizational culture and needs.

1. Define the reverse mentoring program’s purpose

Implementing a reverse mentoring program might be a bit different from, say, building out a hybrid cloud architecture. Yet they share a common requirement: You should know why you’re doing it.

In the typical definition of reverse mentoring, the purpose might be: Bridging generational gaps between older and younger employees, or spurring innovation and new product and service ideas by more actively soliciting input and advice from younger workers. But you can define your program how you see fit.

If you’re building out a DevOps organization, for example, the purpose of “reverse mentoring” might have nothing to do with age and everything to do with technical skills and experience. People who’ve been in traditionally siloed developer or operations roles, for example, can pair off and develop a greater understanding and empathy for the work their colleague does day-to-day.

Similarly, a reverse mentoring program might be a useful tool in driving cultural change in a company where there’s been a longstanding invisible wall between IT and “the business.” As those walls topple down, such a program might drive better communication and collaboration between different departments.

Again, make of this what you want and need. Just be sure your program has a well-defined purpose, even if it’s brief.

2. Consider simply calling it a mentoring program

Depending on the purpose and long-term goals you identify, it may be more inclusive to drop the “reverse” from your reverse mentoring program. (In fact, you might not even need to set up a formal program at all, but hold that thought for a moment.)

“I’d start by not calling it reverse mentoring, and just go with a mentoring program,” says Laura Hilliger, a writer, educator, and technologist and Mozilla alum.

In general, there are pitfalls in the colloquial characterization of mentoring as something that always involves one older person and one younger person, Hilliger notes. There can certainly be benefits in sharing long-time experience with someone just getting going in their career – and vice versa, as the reverse mentoring trend, which flips that script, has shown. But mentoring should ultimately be about learning and collaboration, period, and age doesn’t necessarily need to factor into the equation.

Bottom line: Brand your program in a manner that suits its goals. If you’re indeed doing it to bridge generational gaps, “reverse mentoring” might fit. If you’re doing this for reasons like in the DevOps scenario above, just “mentoring” – or another name altogether – might be the better choice.

3. Review your team’s skill sets & personalities

Even if you go with the traditional approach of pairing a more experienced person with a less experienced one, pair people in an intentional manner.

“I’d do a review of my team’s skill sets, see what people have to offer, and pair people up based on that assessment,” Hilliger advises. Again, that process should connect with the defined purpose of your program.

And don’t forget that you’re dealing with people here, not data centers and codebases.

“Try to take into account the personalities of the team” in the matching process, Hilliger says. “You don’t learn well from someone you don’t really like.”

4. Run a kick-off mentorship workshop

You can take that a step further and run a kick-off meeting or workshop that enables people to become active participants in their mentoring relationship from the start.

”Run a kick-off mentorship workshop so that people could choose their own partnerships,” Hilliger advises. “I’m not sure a forced relationship in something so important is the right way to go. In my experience this important kind of relationship needs to be more organic if it’s going to be successful.”

Indeed, a formal program is not the only option. “A more sustainable and effective — but also more difficult — option is to work to create a culture where mentoring in either direction is a part of every team member’s day-to-day experience,” says VM Brasseur, a technical management consultant and open source expert. (In a moment, Brasseur will share some advice on developing that kind of a culture.)

5. Create a framework for how the program will run

If you’re going to implement a mentoring program in any formal fashion, you’ll want to give people some guidelines that engender their success. We’re not talking about “rules,” but a framework that gives people a starting point for developing a productive mentoring relationship.

The Society for Human Resource Management shares examples of these kinds of guidelines in its article on setting up a reverse mentoring program to promote gender diversity, for instance. They include ideas and milestones such as: hour-long one-on-one meetings to be held monthly in the mentor’s office, written recaps of those meetings (for tracking progress and impact), and other steps.

SHRM’s article shares another key recommendation: “Be willing to iterate.” In other words: Emphasize what works well in your program and chuck what doesn’t. Mentoring isn’t about the short game; it’s a long-term process: “Commit to a long-term mentorship – results are not necessarily immediate,” the article advises, adding: “Understand that this is an evolving relationship.”

Speaking of SHRM: You can tap your HR team for help, even if you opt to go with a more informal or organic approach. Check out SHRM’s article on how HR can support reverse mentoring.

6. Establish a culture conducive to meaningful mentoring

Hilliger and Brasseur concur that valuable mentorship depends on real relationships and a culture that fosters and rewards ongoing learning, collaboration, and innovation. In fact, Brasseur says that the best kind of mentoring might come from not implementing a program at all.

No matter where you land on the spectrum from “non-program” (or informal program) to a formal initiative, you’ll only reap the benefits of mentoring – of any kind – if you’re fostering that kind of culture. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

“This will require establishing an environment of respect and trust such that everyone can feel they have the opportunity not only to speak up but also to be heard,” Brasseur says. “Fostering a team mindset of kaizen (continuous improvement) and learning can also help here.”

7. Look outside of IT

“As you work to build and maintain this culture, don’t forget that there’s much to be learned outside of the IT department as well,” Brasseur advises. “Encouraging open lines of communication to other departments – such as sales, marketing, customer support, etc. – can do wonders for opening the team’s eyes to the overall goals and perspectives of the company and of the product on which they’re working.”

That last part should particularly catch your eye: It brings us back to defining the purpose of any mentoring program, reverse or otherwise.

“Opening the team’s eyes to the overall goals and perspectives of the company and of the product on which they’re working”: That sounds like a great purpose for a mentoring program, and one that the rest of the company’s leadership team can embrace.

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