Reverse Mentoring Gains Renewed Momentum in the Workplace

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, has been credited with helping to spread the popularity of a very helpful cross training technique called “Reverse Mentoring”. Back in the '90s, he realized that GE management had much to learn about the Internet, so he mandated that top executives at the company (including himself) take on a reverse mentor in the form of younger and less experienced personnel who were nonetheless very experienced with the emerging IT technologies as a result of growing up using them. The program was successful in helping high profile executives learn new critical skills quickly, easily, and without the costly necessity of having to bring in outside sources or consultants to teach them.  In addition, these executives were able to learn more about and work with members of junior staff who were exceptional at their jobs and could be earmarked for promotion as they gained more experience and prominence.

For a time, reverse mentoring became a very popular technique for businesses and corporations to adopt.  This was especially useful when smart phones hit the market and executives had to be taught to move beyond the antiquated technology represented by the ultimately stodgy Blackberry, and begin to embrace the new style of compact personal computer that was now appearing in the form of ever more powerful smart phones that contained stronger and more useful productivity aps.  But for a time, reverse mentoring lost prominence in emerging corporate cultures as the internet and new technologies became common place.  The need to exchange knowledge between groups of experienced and junior employees has lessened considerably as newer technologies have become common place for all levels of employees to use.

But lately a new use for Reverse Mentoring has been gaining ground.  And this use is not likely to go away very soon. 

Since the creation of advanced technologies, there has been a significant gap of understanding between the people who use a product, and those who make the product to be used.  And as more sophisticated tools (such as complex software applications, for instance) are developed, this gap of understanding widens into veritable chasms.  A good example is car engineering.  An old friend of mine had a Ford that had the engine block built so close to the side of the engine compartment that you had to remove a whole portion of the metal sidewall just to take the spark plugs out and change them.  Now I can guarantee that if the engineer who designed the build of that car had to also be the person who regularly changed the spark plugs, that design would have been scrapped immediately.  Besides this example, a relative of mine is a professional car mechanic.  He related a story about how several model of a very expensive Humvee vehicle design were built with a non-adjustable portion of tire alignment.  When the vehicles were used to go 4-wheeling, they would get out of alignment and the only way to fix them was for my relative to manufacture from scratch an alignment adjustment addition.  Once again, if the engineers who made it had to be the people who fixed it, such a design would be corrected instantly.

We have the same problem in the software industry.  Then engineers who design software are often not professional users of their own products (though they often feel that be designing it they ARE professional user by default) and they design features that are not needed and are cumbersome, or they cut out features that are critical to make the program successful in the user world. I have especially noted this fallacy to be true when it comes to the design of very complicated programs such as high end WFM/WFO (Workforce Management/Workforce Optimization) tools.

So in order to correct this gap, Reverse mentoring sessions with users and engineers, or with programmers and users, or with product developers and users are now being initiated in progressive companies all around the world.

On the face of it, such a practice might seem to be no more than a simple multifaceted cross training program.  The truth is, for as long as I can remember working, I have seen initiatives created in most companies that I have worked for, that were designed with the intention of eliminating departmental silos, or in helping different groups understand the needs of others.

But the difference with using a Reverse Mentoring program to accomplish this “silo breakdown” is that this methodology for reverse mentoring is very planned, structured, tested, and documented.  The parameters of a successful program can be pulled up instantly in a quick Google search.  The success inherent in using tried and true programs is always achieved at a much higher rate than that or ad hock attempts.  In addition, the interaction of different levels of employees helps bring a refreshing diversity to all business decisions whether initiated at the executive level or below.

When implementing a standard reverse mentoring program I have always run into the same problem. The idea that senior executives could stand to learn a thing or two from new employees always seems to go against traditional workplace practices, where most "more experienced" workers often provide the greatest amount of input, make decisions and provide mentorship to newer employees with "less experience". Simply put, most of the senior managers are too embarrassed to take input from people farther down the totem pole.  In addition, they are also often to full of pride to believe that younger people with less experience really have anything of value to offer them.  In fact, some older executives are insulted by the notion of being mentored by a new employee.

Reverse mentoring programs that instead share interdepartmental “prospective”, do not have quite the same stigma or difficulty.  Most groups that are highly specialized in their own areas are capable of realizing that they can develop tunnel vision in their own expertise that can blind themselves to necessary development features that should be included for optimal user experiences. In such cases there can be significantly fewer barriers to such mentoring groups being formed and cooperating together more easily.  This is the reason for the resurgence in the use of reverse mentoring programs that has occurred in recent years