Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Two workers take part in a reverse mentorship meeting
iStock, Charday Penn

How Reverse Mentoring Can Build a More Resilient Business

Reverse mentoring can bridge the gap between employees of different ranks and generations

Usha Rao, PhD

Usha Rao, PhD, is a researcher, speaker, college professor, and consultant. She is a recipient of the Association for Women in Science’s Zenith award, a lifetime award for achievement, leadership,...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

More than 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs to improve performance and increase retention. Traditional mentoring programs are designed for younger and more junior staff members; thus, the one glaring drawback to these programs is the lack of a mechanism by which senior leaders can receive new knowledge, insights, or honest feedback to improve their leadership and the workplace.

Reverse mentoring, where more junior and/or younger staff members mentor senior leadership to explore specific issues, is a practice that can bridge that gap and help organizations to embrace new and innovative leadership models. 

Get training in Creating an Environment of Success and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Creating an Environment of Success Course

Innovative leadership

A 2019 study in the Harvard Business Review demonstrated that reverse mentoring, now employed by major brands including Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Cisco, and many others, helps senior executives gain fresh insights, retool how they think about strategic issues, leadership, and the mindset with which they approach their work. Such programs can help leaders learn how their behaviors and strategies affect their staff. Younger workers benefit from being included in the leadership pipeline and gaining insights into the industry and their role within it.

Knowledge transfer

Reverse mentoring programs can facilitate knowledge transfer between different age groups, break down silos, increase collaboration, and improve efficiencies in the workplace. This is particularly important in today’s economy where multiple generations work together, with each group bringing different strengths, expectations, and experiences to work. At Estée Lauder, Millennial employees participating in such a program created Dream Space, a company-wide knowledge-sharing portal to exchange ideas. The pharma giant Roche has created a mentoring program in which "Seniors are coached and guided about how the younger talent work and what they want, shaping the workplace into one which reflects the needs of their generation. In return, those new on the career ladder gain valuable insight on core business strategy and how things work from top down. It is about generations learning each other’s social behaviors and backgrounds, rethinking mindsets and growing personally and professionally." 

...Mellon’s Pershing financial services saw a retention rate of 96 percent in a cohort of Millennials that participated in reverse mentoring.

Having newer and/or younger employees mentor more senior and/or older employees accelerates the technology skills transfer that is important in STEM fields, but it can also meet many needs beyond bridging a technology gap. The practice can boost retention, an important consideration given that the seventh annual Deloitte survey found that 43 percent of Millennials plan to leave their job within two years. This loss of trained workers is especially problematic in STEM where training new hires can be expensive and time-consuming. Studies show that younger workers who participate in reverse mentoring programs feel more connected to the company and are more likely to stay. For instance, Mellon’s Pershing financial services saw a retention rate of 96 percent in a cohort of Millennials that participated in reverse mentoring.

Building brand value through an inclusive culture

Reverse mentoring can help strengthen brand value and customer relations. For instance, Citi Latin America uses reverse mentoring programs to understand Millennial perspectives on banking and technology to attract customers and talent. Younger employees and customers expect companies to embrace corporate, social, and environmental responsibility and to exhibit cultural responsiveness and rapid change. Younger workers can help in identifying and addressing these emerging needs. They can also burnish brand image with strategic use of social media, teaching leaders about different platforms, types of posts, social media trends, and finding innovative thinking within and outside of their industry as shared on social media.        

Another emerging area of success for reverse mentoring programs has been in diversity and inclusion. A Forbes study found that more than half of the senior executives at companies with more than ten billion dollars in annual revenue believed that diversity drives innovation. Reverse mentoring programs can help workplaces become more inclusive by pairing, for example, women of color or LGBTQ staff with senior leaders, as Eli Lilly does. PwC Canada saw an increase in staff DEI survey metrics for being an inclusive workplace after implementing a reverse mentoring program. The company is now trying to address the loss of women from the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Procter & Gamble paired senior executives with staff with disabilities and discovered their internal training videos had been inaccessible to staff with hearing loss. The fix—adding closed captioning—was simple, but it was a reverse mentoring program that helped them identify the problem and sharpen their focus on meeting the needs of employees and customers with disabilities.

Implementing Reverse Mentoring

Enlisting HR, an external facilitator, or designated program manager for the mentoring program is an essential component of building a successful program. The program manager can perform a Gaps Analysis to identify authentic and unmet needs that can be addressed by reverse mentoring or determine how to build on areas of existing strength. The designated manager can also help create a structured program with clear goals and metrics, make a partner match to bring different perspectives and experiences together, and provide training and guidance. Studies highlighted in the Harvard Business Review show that without training, only a third of such programs succeed in achieving their goals. The program manager can also assist in avoiding conflicts of interest and crossing supervisory lines in making matches, such as pairing bosses and direct reports or those who work on the same team. 

Reverse mentoring can help strengthen brand value and customer relations.

The program manager can help to identify those who are genuinely interested in participating if the program is voluntary. A lack of interest from senior executives is a common reason for the failure of reverse mentoring programs, arising from concerns about confidentiality, exposing vulnerability, or other factors. A program manager can help to create a Learning Agreement Template that lays out the ground rules around confidentiality to set and implement boundaries and trust. This will help to overcome any concerns about the handling of confidential information between mentors and mentees. Senior mentees could receive reading and other materials in advance so they can arrive prepared to mentoring meetings with questions and thoughts to maximize their time.

Establishing a duration of the program and the frequency of meetings is an important component of all mentoring programs. Unilever, GE, Procter & Gamble, Sodexo, and Accenture, for instance, have all used reverse mentoring programs that last for approximately 12 months, with a mentor-mentee pair meeting every three weeks. Experts suggest making the program business-as-usual, rather than a one-off exercise so the benefits continue to accrue, with different mentor-mentee cohorts serving as guides in shaping the program in successive years. 

A structured reverse mentoring program will have goals and metrics so that progress is benchmarked both within the organization and within the industry and effectiveness is measured. HR can test the efficacy of such mentoring programs by gathering relevant data through polls, surveys, and focus groups, measuring employee satisfaction, retention, performance metrics (e.g., more sales, more patents, fewer lab accidents), customer satisfaction, and other variables of interest so that these metrics can help to finetune the program for each new cohort.

Reverse mentoring can be transformative for a company's or lab group’s culture, generating new ideas to address gaps or build on strengths and building new leadership pipelines. It allows senior leaders to continue growing their skill set and improving the workplace by receiving regular feedback. More junior workers can gain unprecedented insights into their jobs and industry and build their leadership ability by participating in such programs.

Lab Manager's 2024 Leadership Summit, held April 29-May 1, 2024 in Denver, CO, provides attendees numerous opportunities to learn and discuss the value of reverse mentoring for their lab teams. To view the agenda and register, visit: