In an age of echo chambers and generational divide, reverse mentoring strides onto the scene, turning over hierarchies and proclaiming new strategies.

The evolution of an idea

A term first made popular by Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, reverse mentoring seeks to partner a senior employee with a junior one, so that the younger can teach the older. The original motivation behind this was to enable the senior workers to become versed in the technological tools that were forcing out the old ways of working. In the words of Welch, they “tipped the organisation upside down.”

Reverse mentoring has a different emphasis now, though the need for senior employees to learn new tech remains in some industries. The benefits now go two ways: senior employees learn to see from another perspective, junior employees gain a communication link to the top. In its best forms, reverse mentoring fosters connection, understanding and empathy – this worked to interesting effect at The Guardian. Ideally, reverse mentoring allows relationships to form, instead of a series of forced conversations over coffee.

In many ways, reverse mentoring is simply collective leadership rebranded. If you give an old idea a new name, then the idea might safely sail its way into the heart of hierarchical territory as an accepted model. Reverse mentoring has become a trojan horse.  

The power and pitfalls of language

Language is our way of making sense of an idea. The trouble is that language can become a substitute for an idea, a dynamic the Center for Creative Leadership describes as “similar to seeing a country on a map and therefore thinking one understands the people who live there.” As a result, reverse mentoring can mean one thing to General Electric and another to The Guardian. A new term can quickly become a buzzword. We can mistake one thing for another.

Reverse mentoring is important. But it is part of a wider search to understand what good leadership is and when power matters. It is a reinforcement of an idea voiced by Craig Pearce of MEF University: “knowledge trumps position when it comes to leadership.”

The redefining of leadership finds form in Barry Oshry’s system thinking, in network leadership, in self-organising teams. Reverse mentoring is another on the list. Each may appeal to different leaders, to different industries. In many ways, we are all talking about the same idea and believing we are innovative unique because of the terminology we use.

The philosophy found beneath

The emphasis of reverse mentoring is to share knowledge across systems. It allows influence to rise up as well as trickle down. It melts the ice that can form around an insular boardroom or an intimidated junior team. The legacy it leaves may well be in millennial retention as new employees feel less like pawns and more part of a collective. Meanwhile, those closer to the executive end may discover how many answers lie buried within their organisation.

Reverse mentoring can be a core ingredient in changing the culture of a system, especially if the more radical forms of collective leadership cannot yet be implemented. We established it as a key part of our Leading Together programme, which sought to build bridges between 120 health professionals and lay people. The key philosophy was that everybody had something to learn.

As we press into truer expressions of leadership, fresh waves of language will continue to wash over the leadership world. Some will become entry points for people still yet to shake off their outmoded models of leadership. We can celebrate most of them, so long as we don’t mistake the language for the actual process. The language of reverse mentoring may come and go, but its philosophy will continue to influence industries for many years to come.

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