Jack Welch pioneered one of the first nontraditional mentoring programs in 1999. The former CEO of General Electric paired 500 top leaders (including himself) with junior associates who taught the leaders how to use the Internet. In return the associates gained greater visibility.

Two decades later, companies are using similar reverse mentoring programs and newer so-called reciprocal mentoring programs to meet a variety of business challenges.

Reverse and reciprocal mentorship programs vary in scale and scope, but they all share a common approach, says Jason Wingard, dean of Columbia University's School of Professional Studies and former chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs. "They coordinate shared learning between colleagues of diverse backgrounds to create symbiotic corporate learning."

In addition, these mentoring programs are part of a broader societal shift from a knowledge economy to a learning economy.

With reciprocal mentoring, all employees regardless of job level, age, gender, ethnicity and so on, take turns being mentors and mentees, and everyone essentially learns something from everyone.

While some organizations have been slow to adopt these nontraditional mentoring programs, others have recognized that all employees—from the most-senior executives to the greenest assistants—have knowledge and life experience worth tapping into.

"Traditional mentoring is built around the concept of a knowledge economy where knowledge flows from the top down," says Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a lecturer in organizational leadership and policy development at the University of Minnesota. "In a learning economy, everyone is a guide because everyone has knowledge to share."

Bridging the Generation Gap

The top two reasons employers want younger workers to mentor senior leaders involve technology and relationships. Primarily, employers want leaders to learn new technologies. "Technology is the most common umbrella," says Chris Browning, president of River Software, a Colorado mentoring software company. In addition, employers want to help senior leaders "get more in touch with younger generations."

When Sachse Construction, a 170-person general contracting firm in Detroit, launched a reverse mentoring program in 2016, the primary goal was to build better relationships between Baby Boomer leaders and junior-level Millennials.

"We are a learning culture," CEO Todd Sachse says. "We are passionate about training and obsessed with learning. We started the program so that employees from different generations can learn from each other."

Each month last year, about a dozen mentoring pairs met offsite. They discussed a variety of predetermined topics, including the impact of technology, work/life balance, generational labels, education versus work experience, motivation and each workers' future with the company.

Candice Susak, the training associate who runs the company's program, was Sachse's first mentor. Among the things she conveyed to him is how Millennials value having a sense of purpose in their work and knowing that the company is making a positive impact in the world.

"The reverse mentoring program reflects one of our company's core values: 'working to excel every day.' That's something I feel passionate about," Susak says.

At the same time, the program has been a valuable professional development tool for her.

"I used to doubt myself a lot," Susak says. "Knowing that the CEO and president have confidence in me to run the program has really helped my confidence. I can see myself being a leader someday."

Reverse mentoring has also been instrumental to recruiting and retaining Millennials at Sachse—no small feat in an industry where many employers struggle to attract and keep younger employees.

Why? Because engagement is a related primary objective of any reverse mentoring program, says Laura Francis, VP of marketing for River Software.

"When we talk about the benefits of a reverse mentoring program, we usually focus on engagement first, and then retention, because engagement leads to retention," Francis says. "Millennials are quick to jump ship if they don't feel like they're being challenged and recognized."

"Millennials are going to be running the company someday," Sachse says. "If we're not listening to them and learning from them, we're going to lose them."

Building Leadership Capabilities

Experience notwithstanding, many senior executives don't have the skills needed to lead a 21st century workforce shaped by rapidly changing technology and staff demographics. Reverse mentoring programs can help remedy that deficit.

When PwC Consulting in London launched its program in 2014, the top objective was to help leaders become more effective at heading diverse teams.

"We wanted to help partners in our business get a clearer perspective of what it's like for women and employees from different ethnic backgrounds to work in the business and take that into account in their decision making," says Kalee Talvitie-Brown, partner and head of people. "The program makes them better leaders, and that makes for better client engagements."

​The program also encourages junior-level mentors to be more proactive and develop their own leadership capabilities.

Kam Dhaliwal, 30, is a mid-level manager at PwC who's currently mentoring a senior leader. Although she was initially nervous about participating, she found that she benefited greatly from the relationship and from the quarterly meetings she attends with other mentors.

When mentors and mentees meet, while each conversation may be fluid, it's important for the participants to have an open discussion about their expectations for the relationship.

"With my mentee," Dhaliwal says, "we talked about our different backgrounds―what my experience is like as a woman from a different ethnic background, about well-being, diversity and inclusion, and reverse mentoring."

For him, she said, "it was important to talk about communications, leadership and how to ensure that he has an inclusive leadership style."

That type of education is essential. "Regardless of the topic, the most important element of the discussion is not the information exchange; it's leadership development," says David Smith, co-author with Brad Johnson, Ph.D., of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (Routledge, 2016) "Leading the discussion is a learning experience for the junior member on how to organize and present information, as well as how to facilitate dialogue."

Mixed-Gender Mentorship

When Joe Creed, VP of the finance services division at Caterpillar Inc. in Chicago, was first paired with Meghan Lundeen, an HR manager in global information systems, as part of the company's cross-gender reverse mentoring program, he found the role reversal disconcerting.

"Our discussions sometimes include various challenges she's facing, and my natural inclination as a leader is to flip the script and offer her advice and counsel," Creed wrote in a Caterpillar employee blog post. "But listening and seeking to understand needs to come first, followed by a two-way discussion on how the situation should best be handled."

Ultimately, their conversations offered him unique insights into the daily experience of female Caterpillar employees. It helped him to gain a better understanding of the company's culture and climate, he said, and to become a more perceptive leader.

​Yet, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there have been reports that some men are shying away from mentoring women.

"That sets up a false narrative that women are dangerous because they're demanding not to be harassed," says Johnson, coauthor of Athena Rising. "If you're not a predator, you have very little to worry about."

The #MeToo movement actually presents an opportunity for men and women to learn how to work together in a mutually respectful way, says Melinda Weider, director of the Reciprocal Mentoring Lab consulting company in Seattle.

The company's program (which is based on Smith and Johnson's research) pairs high-potential female employees with upper-level male executives who are at or slightly above their level in the organization.

"It's a tangible solution to the problem of companies not having enough women in leadership roles," Weider says. "We approach it with a learning lens where men and women learn how to work together as equals."

Smith and Johnson emphasize the importance of using reciprocal mentoring with high-potential female employees because it's more likely to lead to greater gender equality in the workplace.

"There's an easy business case for reciprocal cross-gender mentoring for high-potential women," Johnson says. "It builds leadership skills in both directions. For him, it builds empathy, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. For her, it's an opportunity to gain recognition, visibility, and access to information and networks. It's a way to ensure that high-potential women aren't falling through the cracks."

Diversity and Inclusivity

With more women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities in the workforce, organizations sometimes find it challenging to find ways to make the most of their strengths.

Some corporate programs match employees from these different backgrounds with senior executives who can help them advance in their careers. For employees who feel marginalized, it can be a powerful tool to build trust and loyalty.

The mentoring program at Eli Lilly and Company, a global pharmaceutical corporation headquartered in Indianapolis, was launched in 2015 by the company's LGBT Employee Resource Group. The voluntary program matches LGBT employees with senior leaders in order to influence and educate the leaders about this employee group.

SHRM's Tony Lee is joined by Arlene Hirsch, a recognized expert in career psychology and the proprietor of a Chicago-based career and psychological counseling firm. Tony and Arlene discuss what reverse mentoring is, how reverse mentoring fosters inter-generational connections, reverse mentoring's importance for managing a diverse workforce and reverse mentoring in the #MeToo era.

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