Mentoring Role

Mentoring Role Reversal

Traditionally, mentoring has involved the most seasoned professionals offering best-practice advice to their junior counterparts. But today, some organizations engage in reverse mentoring programs in which younger practitioners teach new tools and insights on process improvements to the veterans.

Cisco Systems, in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA, offers a reverse mentoring program in which mentees and mentors are strategically paired based on what each hopes to gain from and bring to the relationship. For example, a 20-year-old professional who is new to project management might mentor a 40-year-old project manager. A 30-year-old who is new to the organization might mentor a 60-year-old who has been with the company for 25 years.

The junior-level mentor should not directly report to the senior-level mentee, says Noriko Wade, PMP, program manager and reverse mentoring program co-lead for the Advanced Services division at Cisco Systems. "We don't want either party to be stifled in what he or she talks about," says Ms. Wade, adding that pairings are confidential. "We encourage people to be respectful but talk about things they wouldn't necessarily talk about with their own group."

There are many benefits for the longer-term employee and the organization, including learning and/or adopting new tools and better efficiencies.

Teaching New Technical Tools

Young professionals usually are keen on new collaborative tools that enable web-based time tracking, task assignment, reporting and document sharing, says Dmitri Ivanenko, PMP, project management consultant,, Vancouver, Canada. Seasoned project managers, who may be likely to use single-dimension spreadsheets or keep paper trails for project activities, would save time by learning about and using these tools that provide immediate access to all project activities. "There is an element of clear accountability with these new tools. They provide an up-to-date status report so anyone can log in anytime to see how much money has been spent or what tasks have been accomplished," Mr. Ivanenko says.

Because these tools automate many processes and allow multiple authors, project managers can delegate the administrative tasks of reporting and focus more on stakeholder management or benefits realization.

Creating Better Efficiencies

Younger professionals generally want to get ahead in their careers quickly while maintaining a vibrant personal life. As a result, they tend to identify ways to reduce inefficiencies in current processes and to work more productively. This tendency not only benefits individual interests but also is an advantage to the team and the organization as a whole.

"More seasoned project managers may think, 'This is a required process.' But younger professionals will look for ways to reduce the cycle of activities, but not reduce quality," Mr. Ivanenko says. "With reverse mentoring, the two can complement one another: The seasoned person sees a lot of blind spots that the fresher mind can't see yet."

Setting a Productive Mindset

Despite the benefits, senior-level project practitioners may be hesitant or even resistant to the idea of reverse mentoring. It's important that veterans remember the value they bring to the organization, such as effectively predicting and planning for risk or allocating resources—skills that come with time and practice.

The advantages of leveraging both the mentor's and the mentee's knowledge must be clearly communicated to both parties. "When both generations can support one another and share their experiences, it completes the picture," Mr. Ivanenko says.

Tips for an Effective Reverse Mentoring Program

If you are in a position to influence the decision to start a reverse mentoring program or establish it yourself, here are some things Ms. Wade suggests you consider:

  • Allow face-to-face interaction by establishing local relationships. If you must make remote pairings, ensure their time zones are compatible.
  • Encourage mentors and mentees to meet in person for at least an hour a month.
  • Ask that both parties be fully connected and engaged during sessions—turn mobile phones off and laptops down if possible.
  • Conduct post-mortem surveys to determine the effectiveness of the program.
  • Provide the framework but allow mentors and mentees the freedom to make it a learning experience for both parties.

Source: PMI

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