Reverse mentoring programs are a powerful and impactful way companies can show they’re taking an active approach to inclusion. Numerous events in the past few years have revealed numerous inequities for workers from historically underrepresented groups. In fact, one need look no further than key diversity stats to see why:

  • Black and Hispanic workers are still significantly underrepresented at the executive and managing director levels (Accenture)
  • 71% of sponsors share the same race or gender as their top protégé (Coqual)
  • Only 5% of Black workers have a sponsor, compared to 20% of White workers (Harvard Business Review)
  • 85% of available jobs are filled through networking (LinkedIn)
  • 97% of Black employees who were working remotely during the pandemic were hesitant to return to the office full time, due partly to negative experiences with discrimination and glass ceilings (Future Forum)

Whittling down the cause and effect is fairly simple. Those in leadership tend to use the strength of their position and influence to help their protégés succeed and move up the ranks. But when a significant “networking gap” exists within the non-white and non-male population of an organization, D&I becomes all the more challenging to achieve.

For organizations struggling to derail themselves from this self-perpetuating problem, reverse mentoring may be the solution. A strategy that flips the script on the traditional mentor-mentee framework, reverse mentoring allows the typically more diverse junior-level employees to expand their networks among senior leaders while giving senior leaders the space to continue their own growth in a high-impact learning relationship.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is not a new concept. The term was coined over 20 years ago by then-CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. A notably controversial figure, Welch pioneered the idea through a program that paired junior-level employees with senior-level managers and executives to help senior leaders upskill their understanding of modern technology.

The strategy was such a success that it became a standard approach at GE and was replicated at many other organizations. Now, reverse mentoring strategies can be found at numerous Fortune 500 companies, including PwC, Cisco, UnitedHealth, and Facebook.

Reverse mentoring programs are relatively easy to structure. In fact, they can be broken down into a few simple steps:

  • Identify the biggest knowledge gaps that exist within your organization’s executive and management teams
  • Create the structure for a mentoring program that is built around leveraging internal knowledge to upskill your leaders
  • Identify and invite junior-level team members who excel at those skills
  • Pair junior-level mentors and senior-level mentees into learning relationships
  • Track engagement and give the junior-level mentors the freedom to provide constructive feedback without the fear of reprisal

So where is the challenge? Part of it is in organizational leadership humbling themselves to the idea that leadership does not always know best, especially when it comes to D&I. So as organizations seek to build out their D&I, the best place to start may well be a Reverse Mentoring program where leadership can become better acquainted with the lived experiences of the increasingly diverse individuals they lead.

Reverse mentoring succeeds where D&I often fails

D&I strategies often fail because senior leaders tend to focus on the wrong D&I goals. Is it any wonder that Perceptyxdiscovered that 75% of companies don’t have D&I as a part of their leadership development training, or that 40% view D&I only as a way to mitigate lawsuits or reputational hazards?

D&I is about more than just checking the right boxes at the right time or making sure that your company isn’t seen in a negative light. D&I strategies, and reverse mentoring in particular, are designed to:

  • Help your organization create more authentic relationships across the organization
  • Break traditional networking and sponsorship silos that perpetuate sameness of ideas and experience
  • Improve the financial performance of your organization.

That last point might be a surprise, but it’s one that’s backed by a growing body of data. Companies that have more diverse executive teams (both gender-based and ethnically) significantly outperform those that don’t, according to McKinsey and other studies.

Taking the lead by leading in reverse

Organizations that fail to uplift their diverse workers also risk higher turnover rates. According to one Deloitte survey, millennials (who will make up the largest section of workers in less than 10 years’ time) would stay longer at companies that are more diverse. More tenure equals higher productivity and lower expense – the cost of replacing an individual employee can be twice their annual salary.

There’s more. That pipeline of skilled, diverse workers is increasingly hard to find, especially in light of the Great Resignation, and worker shortages. Companies that use reverse mentoring strategies have an advantage here.

Workers who are promoted internally tend to stay 41% longer than external hires. Doing the hard work of hiring more diverse workers at the junior level is only the first step. Taking an active approach to ensure these individuals get properly networked within the company, and identified and promoted to leadership positions, gives a distinct competitive advantage to those companies that can attract a more diverse pool of workers at junior levels.

All of that said, workers are now looking to their employers to be moral change agents. That includes tearing down generational barriers to success that historically underrepresented groups have faced for generations. Reverse Mentoring programs are a proven way of bringing about change. They allow companies to do more than check boxes, they demonstrate progress to workers and they pave the way to growth, something no company can afford to ignore.


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