Reverse gear - tech companies turn to mutual mentoring for staff

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett July 2, 2017
The concept of reverse mentoring has now morphed into the idea of mutual mentoring. Cath Everett talks to two tech companies which have introduced the approach into their own organisations.

The concept of reverse mentoring first came to light in 1999 when Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric (GE), asked 500 of his top executives to pair up with junior associates to help them learn how to use the internet.

Since then, a number of large multi-nationals ranging from Credit Suisse to Burberry  have followed suit and introduced formal programmes. But the practice, which involves a junior team member entering into a professional relationship with a more seasoned professional in order to share their skills, knowledge and understanding, has never gained widespread currency. As Chris Hafner, president of management consultancy Aspirant explains:

For many start-ups and digital tech companies, reverse mentoring is built into who they are and is part of their culture. But as an intentional construct, it’s not very widespread. There are some formal programmes, but they tend to focus more on traditional mentoring, while reverse mentoring tends to happen less by intent and more by relationships developing on an ad hoc basis. However, the larger the organisation, the more important reverse mentoring can be.

But nearly 20 years after it first appeared at GE, the concept has now matured and morphed into the idea of ‘mutual’ or ‘reciprocal’ mentoring. The focus of both formal and informal programmes is generally two-fold: the first is about showing more experienced managers the value of technology in general and social media in particular in order to help them exploit it effectively to generate value for the business.

A second common aim is to improve communication and understanding between different generations and demographics, the idea ultimately being to change perceptions and, therefore, behaviour. As Patrick Voss, managing director at Jeito, a consultancy specialising in organisational culture and employee engagement, points out:

It’s more impactful if both sides are trying to learn. It helps build mutual understanding, which can also help to defuse tension by not only enabling senior leaders to understand the issues faced by more junior colleagues, but also helping more junior people to understand the world that senior people live in too.

The impetus for adopting such an approach often comes out of conducting annual or bi-annual employer surveys, which reveal dissatisfaction with certain circumstances or issues. But it can also be driven by a desire to promote an inclusion agenda or new legislation, which creates red flags in areas such as accessibility.

Informal programme

One organisation that encourages mutual mentoring in an informal sense is IT consultancy, CapGemini UK. To this end, it has dedicated a section of the company portal to providing its 9,000 employees with a range of mentoring-related resources including videos and guides to support them in the endeavour. This toolkit covers topics such as the role of a mentor and mentee, how to get connections started and ethical behaviour.

But Anouska Ramsay, the firm’s talent director, says that, although a formal programme has been tried, the feedback was that people preferred a more informal stance. She explains:

The problem with creating too much formality and writing it into your learning and development objectives is that it’s not always the right time for people to be getting involved. It’s all about personal relationships and you need to feel like there’s a connection there. There has to be a bit of chemistry and an element of trust and respect to make it work so insisting that it’s part of learning and development isn’t necessarily a positive thing.

By way of contrast, she cites the case of company secretary Julie Mangan, who by coincidence met graduate apprentice Aishwarya at Heathrow airport in London. When they subsequently got together for a cup of tea, the original aim was for Julie to help her newbie colleague find her feet in the organisation.

But Aishwarya also provided Julie with a new perspective. She showed her how to improve her social media profile and also how important health and fitness was for both personal and professional wellbeing. As Ramsay says:

It’s about challenging preconceptions and getting a fresh view of things. Looking at things through a different lens can get you into new ways of working. It’s difficult to put a hard measure of success around it, but there are huge benefits in connecting with people coming from different perspectives.

Another organisation that has trialled a mutual mentoring scheme is software supplier, CA Technologies. Diversity has been an important focus for the company’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) operations for a number of years so in order to build on that work, the decision was taken to introduce a pilot mutual mentoring programme in 2016.

Gabrielle Ferguson, talent development partner for the firm’s EMEA region, held an initial two-hour face-to-face training session in May last year, which covered issues such as aims, benefits, roles and responsibilities and what to expect, and the initiative was formally wrapped up in February this year. She explains the rationale behind the move:

It’s in our corporate mission statement to eliminate barriers between ideas and outcomes, but particularly for staff from diverse backgrounds, one barrier can be access and visibility. So we were keen to introduce a programme that would break down those barriers.

Three pairs of volunteers were chosen to take part in the initiative, after a call was put out to existing members of diversity initiatives or networking groups (based on gender or ethnicity, for example) for possible participants. The three senior directors selected were all Caucasian and included one woman. They were matched with junior and middle managers from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and, where feasible, with different genders in order to make the diversity spectrum as wide as possible.

Confidentiality and honesty

Each pair also came from a different department in order to minimise concerns over being able to open up confidentially and honestly with each other and also to prevent accusations of favouritism.

They met once a month for six months, excluding a break over the summer holiday season. The first meeting was a getting-to-know-you session based on sharing each other’s stories and talking honestly about both successes and failures.

During training, a series of optional topics had been suggested for discussion during subsequent meetings, but the dialogue also included any current challenges being faced. These ranged from how to improve recruitment practices to how the company’s diversity-based networking groups could work together more effectively.

As well as a mentoring handbook and logbook for each participant to record their progress, a mid-point review was also held after three months to enable the HR team to check in and provide support. A wrap-up and celebratory event was likewise held at the end to glean feedback and understand what people had gained from the experience.

The aim now is to use this feedback, along with information gleaned from participants’ logbooks, to develop a potential business case based on hard and soft measures of success for introducing a formal scheme, possibly next year.

From a senior management perspective, one of the key benefits of the experience was gaining more awareness of what it felt like to be an employee from a BAME background. Another was helping leaders to understand the advantages of cross-functional collaboration. For example, one senior manager realised that by simply cooperating with people from different departments, it would be possible to reduce duplication and bring a tranche of outsourced education and enablement work back in house, saving CA £1 million in the process.

From the more junior managers’ viewpoint, meanwhile, the process helped them develop more confidence, which translated into them assuming more responsible roles in either their job or networking group. The experience also boosted both their leadership skills and profile.

As for the lessons learned so far, Ferguson summarises them into four key points:

  • Mutual mentoring has the most impact if both parties are able to trust each other and reveal their human side. For senior leaders to admit they do not have all of the answers is a powerful experience for more junior personnel as most believe that success is about making the right moves rather than learning from your mistakes.
  • It is important to stress that what you get out of the mutual mentoring experience reflects what you put into it – on both sides. Rapport and trust takes time to build but can be lost quickly. This means that commitment is required. Such commitment is at least partially demonstrated by sticking to scheduled meetings – after ideally booking three consecutive ones into diaries from the outset - and not cancelling them repeatedly.
  • Rather than hold a participant check-in meeting at the half-way point, do so after the first month, particularly in the case of more junior staff members as they may need support in containing their nerves in order make the most of the situation .
  • Be aware that ageism can be di-directional and there are often stereotypes associated with generational labels such as ‘Baby Boomers’.

My take

Mutual mentoring programmes can have huge benefits in terms of developing understanding and awareness between employees of different ages and backgrounds. But it is not just a matter of throwing a couple of random people together and hoping for the best. These initiatives, whether formal or informal, need to be thought-through and backed up with adequate support to ensure that everyone benefits.