Inverting the stereotypical image of mentorship can spark several benefits, including keeping younger employees engaged and enthusiastic.
The process of getting the attention of a younger generation of recruits and keeping them engaged is not what it used to be. For many companies, the struggle goes hand in hand with how to stay relevant to their millennial consumers.
Workplace reverse mentoring programs are a growing response to the problem. These programs pair young, talented employees as mentors to more senior executive leaders, who are the mentees, with benefits all round.
Law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) was one of the first companies to explore reverse mentoring in Australia, introducing a pilot scheme in early 2018 that has been running successfully ever since. There are 134 mentors and mentees currently in the program.
As part of the pilot, Andrew Pike, the firm’s executive partner for Australia, was taken under the wing of junior lawyer Myra Beal, and their mentee/mentor relationship continues today. Only recently they met to share perspectives on work practices post COVID-19.
Although the initial focus was on bringing Pike up to speed on technology (Beal taught him coding and how to build HSF’s homepage using HTML and CSS) the scope of the mentoring relationship has become broader.
“We talk about people and culture, about career aspirations, training and outlook, and how we make sure that what we are offering at HSF meets the needs of younger generations,” Pike says.
With nearly half of millennials saying that they want to leave their job in the next two years, according to The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2019, Pike and his firm are acutely aware that they need to be “laser sharp in how we evolve our talent proposition”, and that competition for smart candidates such as Beal is coming from start-ups, banks and other law firms.
Two years into the program, Pike says HSF is seeing a lower attrition rate and rising levels of engagement and energy. Other businesses have measured the impact of their reverse mentoring programs.
“Most of them appreciated the safe environment provided by the one-on-one sessions to help them gain insight into using social media for greater impact. The mentors were also able to bring a refreshing perspective to help the mentees see how social media could bring value to their work.” Pauline Ho FCPA, PwC
For example, Pershing, a financial services company in the US, recorded a 96 per cent retention rate for the 77 millennials who took part.
Reverse mentoring ticks many boxes in terms of employee satisfaction. It satiates a thirst for continuous learning, offers opportunities for career progression and involvement in shaping company culture, and gives a sense of personal fulfilment.
A different perspective
Of the individual benefits afforded by reverse mentoring, Pike says that the mentor/mentee relationship has provided him with a unique insight into the mindset of Beal and her cohort of relatively junior lawyers, who are digital natives.
“They are part of a future that is taking shape as we speak.
“They may be junior in years, but in terms of their skills, they are quite a bit more advanced in digital abilities than some of us who have been in the profession for longer,” Pike says.
“They have a view on the way law should be practised in the future – by using technology to create efficiencies and working in a more cost-conscious way.”
Pike says there has always been a tension between how much experience you need – “being in the trenches” – learning to do basic tasks, and how much you can bypass that experience. He believes it is an area of healthy discussion.
“Conversations around culture have been fascinating and robust. [It’s an opportunity to say], that is your perspective – but here is another perspective that is equally valid,” Pike says.
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It is fair to say, however, that not every senior manager is going to willingly put up their hand to be “schooled” by a more junior colleague. Initial resistance was overcome at PwC in Malaysia, where Pauline Ho FCPA is the organisation’s assurance partner, PwC Malaysia, and human capital leader for PwC Asia-Pacific.
“As our mentees were partners and directors, time was a billable commodity. The stakes were high on the introductory sessions: we had to make sure that the value of the program was clearly communicated to the mentees in order to secure their ongoing commitment.”
Ho says their tactic was to engage the right stakeholders by identifying influential senior leaders who could be a sounding board and advocate for the program. Finding the right mentor/mentee match based on personality and working style was also important to ensure the sustainability of the relationship and the program’s success.
In Kuala Lumpur, the primary aim of the reverse mentoring scheme was to get more senior executives onto social media.
“Most of them appreciated the safe environment provided by the one-on-one sessions to help them gain insight into using social media for greater impact. The mentors were also able to bring a refreshing perspective to help the mentees see how social media could bring value to their work,” Ho says.
Pike says mentees should always go into reverse mentoring with “an open mindset, a real thirst for learning and a realisation that while age brings experience, it doesn’t equal knowledge. There is another way.”