How to Leverage Reverse Mentoring to Increase Diversity in Your Organization

By Serenity Gibbons, local unit lead for NAACP

In my work for the NAACP, diversity is a key objective. I’m also aware of the importance of identifying new ways to help others increase diversity within their own organizations. One of these approaches for promoting diversity is known as reverse mentoring. Here’s what I have learned about this special mentorship relationship and how it could be an option for your startup or company.

What is reverse mentoring?

When I used to think of mentoring, it was always in the context of a relationship where someone older, with more experience, was providing guidance and shaping my professional and personal journey. But younger people can also provide insights and perspectives that would have otherwise been missed by more senior team members.

Reverse mentoring involves reaching out to your employees for guidance, feedback and direction. And it is not a new concept. In the late 1990s, GE CEO Jack Welch explained that he was leveraging reverse mentoring because his younger employees had a better understanding of how to use up-and-coming technology such as the internet.

How can reverse mentoring positively impact diversity?

It’s not just about understanding technology; reverse mentoring can also change ingrained perspectives that may be inhibiting true organizational diversity. For example, many older workers see younger employees as not as valuable, while younger workers believe that older workers are set in their ways and unable to grasp new technology. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Zers are less concerned with race, ethnicity, sexual preference or identity and level of ability/disability. By having open conversations and taking the time to find common ground, younger employees can break down the beliefs held by older workers.

By having younger staff members teach older staff members, other benefits emerge that can aid the spread of a culture based on the value of diversity. When I participated in a reverse mentoring relationship, we both learned something valuable. For example, one big issue when it comes to diversity is differences in communication style — this can lead to many misunderstandings. However, in talking about certain phrases, tones of voice and body language, those misunderstandings were alleviated.

Reverse mentoring has opened up opportunities that may not have happened in terms of an honest and open environment to discuss ideas and perspectives. I have spent more time getting to know others in the workplace who I may not have engaged with otherwise. It made me realize that even when discussing the value of diversity in the workplace, I wasn’t doing as much as I could to understand others.

How can you add reverse mentoring to your organization?

Start slow. It’s important to move slowly with reverse mentoring. Offering it as a volunteer program at first may help more people within your organization work into the idea. If those in the organization feel forced, it won’t work well in helping to spread understanding and awareness.

Even when the reverse mentoring program is accepted, it is best to take a cautious approach to what can be a very complex relationship. There are long-held beliefs and emotions that go into looking at differences and moving past stereotypes that have been long-established and ingrained, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sensitivity is critical to how you approach adding and managing reverse mentoring.

Provide guidance and structure. To help mentors and mentees understand how this type of program works, provide some initial guidance, including suggested topic areas to get the process rolling. Have them focus on the business perspective and veer away from any topic that could be focused on social, cultural or political issues. The business perspective is an easy area to uncover the common ground necessary to put both people at ease.

Lastly, have someone oversee what should be a formal program with directions, timelines and metrics for review to determine how the relationships are working or what might be improved. Adding structure to reverse mentoring programs sends the message that it’s a priority to your organization. And when you clearly communicate the context and benefits for reverse mentoring, you may find more people are willing to try it.

Serenity Gibbons is the local unit lead for NAACP in Northern CA. She is a former assistant editor of the Wall Street Journal.

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