The power of reverse mentoring

It was recently the National Mentoring Day in the US and it is a good reminder of the power of mentoring.

Many mentoring programmes fail though, despite the best of intentions and even well laid out plans.

But it doesn’t have to be that way – and the answer spells ‘organic mentoring’. If you’re not familiar with the concept, then let us have a quick look at it.

Organic Mentoring

Organic mentoring is when mentoring happens naturally, ie a person seeks out the guidance and support of someone they would like to have as a mentor. It’s organic; it meets the mentees specific needs and it is driven by the desire of the mentee and the mentor.

They both see the value and benefits of the mentoring relationship. And when there is that shared desire to make it happen, it goes without saying that the results will follow.

“Behind every great leader, at the base of every great tale of success, you will find an indispensable circle of trusted advisors, mentors, and colleagues.”


Mentoring programmes in organisations often suffer from some or all of the following challenges:

  • They are initiated by someone other than the mentors/mentees themselves (which creates a sense of “oh, it’s X’s programme”, which stops people from taking full responsibility for the experience themselves – they abdicate the responsibility to the initiator)
  • People feel they ‘have to’ participate
  • People don’t feel they have the time to participate (or that becomes the excuse for not doing more than paying lip service)
  • The mentor and mentee don’t get on or maybe don’t even like or respect each other
  • The mentor and/or mentee don’t see or understand the benefits of being part of the mentoring initiative
  • The mentor and mentee don’t take equal responsibility for the success of the mentoring
  • People are not sure how to get the most out of it, as the expectations have not been set correctly – or there’s no real understanding of how to make it work
  • There’s a culture in the organisation of starting something but not following it through – it becomes another “great initiative but it just fizzled out as the latest management fad got introduced”

How to make Mentoring Programmes a success

When considering a mentoring programme, we recommend taking an approach that comes as close to an organic mentoring as possible, while at the same time providing the structure and support that is needed to make it as easy and effortless for the mentor and mentee to just get on with the mentoring.

An important part of kicking it all off is to have a very clear message and a communication strategy that ensures everyone involved really “gets” the value of the initiative. The communication should then continue throughout the mentoring timeline to help keep the momentum going, encouraging the participants to keep being proactive, looking for the continuous learning opportunities in the conversations with their mentor or mentee.

“Advice is like snow; the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Another important ingredient is to prepare both mentors and mentees for their roles. This should include

  • Deciding on desired outcomes of the mentoring – what do you want to achieve by having a mentor?
  • As a mentee: deciding on what experience/skills/characteristics that you know you can learn from and are therefore looking for in mentor
  • As a mentor: thinking about what experience/skills/experience you have that may be of particular interest/value to the mentees in the mentoring programme
  • Clarification of roles – what does it mean to be a mentor and what does it mean to be a mentee? What’s expected of me?
  • Considering how to structure the mentoring interaction for maximum benefit – eg. How long will it go on? How often will we meet/talk? What mentoring principles will we agree on (eg. Confidentiality etc)
  • Behavioural recommendations such as keeping an open mind, listening well, using critical thinking – and letting go of any need to “be right”, hence being truly open to the learning opportunity.

Mentoring goes both ways

In addition to this, we have noticed that the benefits for the mentor are often not highlighted enough, hence not getting to the full potential of the mentoring relationship. The mentor should get as much out of the mentoring as the mentee, as you learn a lot when you start sharing your experience and insights and can see it contribute to the mentor and his/her situation. We have found that mentors who start mentoring and realise that they will also go through a learning experience, recognising that there’s plenty to learn from someone more junior, with a different generational perspective, go from strength to strength.

So don’t give up on mentoring programmes – when done effectively, they are powerful and creative processes that can fast-forward the learning of all parties involved.

Maybe it’s time for you to get a mentor – or become one – to continue future-proofing your leadership.

Author: Mandy and Elisabet

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