Growing leaders through ‘reverse’ mentoring
‘Mentoring’ is a common term when speaking about leadership development. The idea of ‘reverse mentoring’ on the other hand is only recently gaining traction. As John Maguire (2015) uncovers in his article, Is ‘reverse mentoring’ the next big thing in HR?, such trends are linked to the rapid evolution of digital technologies alongside a desire for fresh and innovative thinking. With an ever increasing focus on innovation comes an expansive new terrain of information, systems, processes and data, all of which must be effectively implemented, learnt, navigated and experienced. At the current rate of innovation, ‘reverse mentoring’ provides a worthy solution for both established and emerging leaders, regardless of their generation.
There is no doubt we are in an era of disruption, within which we must all eventually come to terms with the impact of societal shifts such as the sharing economy. For this reason, it makes sense that we ‘share’ our learnings across generations in order to broaden them. In dissecting the term ‘reverse mentoring’ Maguire (2015) cites Melbourne based Andrew Lafontaine, who sees this as “a way of getting some disruptive thinking […] to the higher ranks”. He states that the value, or ‘return’ for Gen Z, Y and millennials, in being a part of such an exchange is in the time and access with senior leaders who poses “an enormous bank of intellect” and of a “very different mind-set” from which to learn.
When implementing such a scheme Lafontaine advises that “alignment between the objectives of both parties” is key. Maguire (2015) expands, “He also advised those considering reverse mentoring not to conform to the way things are done within the organisation as a whole.” With a desire for fresh thinking, comes the need for new ways of working and a stage for the untested. Effectively, there is no right or wrong way of implementing a reverse mentoring scenario, but there are key factors that will impact upon the success.
As part of my career development in mid-twenties, I took advantage of the many funding opportunities available to ‘young and emerging artists’, including formal mentoring programs. I gained an initial mentorship through the Australia Council’s Dance Board to be mentored by artist, producer and critical thinker David Pledger. Whilst the funding was necessary to engage in creative development projects, it also allowed me to justify time, and countless coffees, with my mentor. I learnt very quickly that whilst there is no prescribed length of time that one should be mentored for, the six month funding period was only ever going to scratch the surface with such a critical and creative thinker. For this reason I ensured I had several ‘funding’ irons in the fire at one time and maintained this over several years.
Shortly after the initial mentorship was acquitted, I received a SPARK Mentorship, again supported by the Australia Council (Theatre Board). At this time, the reporting requirements associated with such programs begun to pile up. It seemed that on the one hand I was undertaking an arts mentorship and on the other, I was being primed to adhere to strict compliance and reporting structures which were to be associated with my future career in the arts. At times it even seemed that more emphasis was placed on the reporting than on the personal and professional experience. Pledger and I were not afraid to raise this flaw, and ironically it was this act which bought me the greatest learning.
Overtime, I managed to find a balance, opting to fund ‘projects’ rather than ‘experiences’ and seek out incidental learning opportunities where possible. Thanks to start-up grants, I launched Xmachine Productions, developing and presenting several works in rapid succession into the public and digital space. The mentor/mentee relationship grew organically and I eventually worked for Pledger’s not yet it’s difficult, as did many of the artists operating within Xmachine Productions at the time. Over the five year mentorship period, I was particularly aware of the subtle instances of ‘reverse mentoring’ which were occurring. In all cases, these surrounded the area of emerging technologies.
The journey described provided me with seven key learnings about mentoring, all of which have application across reverse mentoring. These are:
- If you are seeking to be mentored, it is YOU who must drive this. Formalise it, fund it, ask the questions, set up the meetings – what ever it takes.
- An understanding that at the heart of mentoring is ‘sharing’.
- The knowledge that the best form of mentoring occurs naturally – there is not prescribed length of time. Mentoring must be able to occur at ‘anytime’.
- Mentoring is people-centric not project focused.
- Knowing that whilst expectations, objectives and regulations are important, ‘ticking boxes’ is not.
- Both parties have to be ‘willing to learn’ from one another.
- It is important to feel supported to ‘take risks’.
At present, I am fortunate enough to be working under a seasoned leader, Ange Barry (CEO, Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation). As a not-for-profit, funding for staff development is often scarce, however Barry understands that building and maintaining an innovative, creative and longstanding organisation means enhancing the culture, as well as continually developing the skills, knowledge and experience of ‘the team’. In a recent performance appraisal I put forward a desire to develop my leadership skills. Ange’s response was the ‘collaboration project’, which I have been tasked to drive.
Whilst it is only early days, the learning opportunities available to me in undertaking an organisation-wide project focused on collaboration, learning and development are obvious. What may not be so obvious, but was most likely understood, are the ‘reverse’ benefits. Projects whereby senior leaders and younger staff like myself can work together as outlined above, will not only provide benefits to the team, but will most certainly grow into positive outcomes built on sharing, creative risk-taking and fresh thinking. Projects which are enhanced by a depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, allowing us to work together to navigate the ever-growing information systems and complex matrix that is the modern workplace.
Maguire, J., (2015), Is ‘reverse mentoring’ the next big thing in HR? Retrieved from: