Introducing a reverse mentoring program provides employees and managers benefits beyond simply learning a new technology or skill.
When I started QA InfoTech in 2003, my goal was twofold: to help my clients build quality products to meet and exceed end-user expectations and to internally build a quality organization founded on a core team of motivated individuals.
In my humble opinion, the first objective is relatively easier done than the second. Since setting this goal, my management team and I have taken on as one of our key result areas the task of building this intangible yet indispensable “human” asset.
One such technique that has been successful for us is the “reverse mentoring” program, a program where managers are mentored by employees who work for them directly or indirectly. You may already be doing this in various forms—explicitly or implied—such as with skip-level meetings (meetings with employees who work in your organization, team, or department but do not directly report to you), smaller group-level trainings and meetings, etc. We have formalized this mentoring technique to create a win-win situation for both our employee base and the company. Here’s a look at how we have conceptualized and implemented reverse mentoring in a generic form that most organizations can leverage as-is.
Adopt a push-pull mechanism where senior management periodically sends out a company-wide email soliciting reverse mentoring on specific topics. These can include technical and software testing topics or anything else that is core to your company’s DNA. An open invitation can be extended to the company at large, asking employees to reach out to specific people from the management team and invite them to a presentation on a relevant and interesting topic. Such a pull mechanism makes the program successful because the employees volunteer to be mentors, and it helps identify driven and motivated individuals. Giving employees the freedom to choose the topic also helps them bring out their best and think creatively to delve into diverse areas because the ideas are their own.
Often, reverse mentoring programs start off with a bang but are soon punted due to lack of time. Once team members understand the importance of this program, you will see them make room in their schedules for these mentoring sessions. It is important to remember that it is not only senior management who has a busy schedule—employees also must take time away from their projects to prepare for these meetings. The respect for each other’s time and value reaped from these meetings soon will become driving factors that help these sessions convene regularly.
In addition to learning a new topic, there are more things managers can glean from these sessions:
- How motivated is the individual, and can you get a sense of his happiness quotient as your employee?
- Grassroots-level observation of what is going well, what can be done better, pain points, project challenges, and work environment standpoints
- The individual’s potential and readiness to step into a bigger role
- Input about the client whose project the mentor is working on
You will soon see amongst the mentor community not just a sense of pride, but also the commitment to delve into the details of the discussion topic, given that they are mentoring the senior management team. This program provides excellent learning potential for the mentors technically as well as in grooming their communication, presentation, and articulation skills.
As a senior person in your company, this is an excellent opportunity for you to subtly help the mentor think big and outside the box. Ask questions about trends and examples related to his topic, helping him think strategically and add more value in his client assignments. Help the mentor capture topics of interest to the community at large in print form, which you can then use in your company’s blogs, white papers, case studies, and conference material. This helps the company establish itself as a thought leader in its domain as well as provides an avenue for objective career progression for your employees. These contributions should be taken into account in the annual performance appraisal, helping provide tangible returns to the mentor community of people who have gone over and above their call of duty.
Here are some concrete examples where reverse mentoring has helped us expand our portfolio of offerings and, in some cases, even helped us be better corporate citizens:
- Our team mentored us on the various techniques to adopt in accessibility testing recently, which gave us a chance to brainstorm various programs with team members. As an outcome, we have engaged visually impaired people to provide realistic accessibility feedback to our clients, which they are finding very useful. Besides the product value this initiative adds, we are proud of creating job opportunities for the visually impaired in the software testing discipline.
- Our team’s mentoring in the areas of security testing and automated compatibility testing has forced us to invest more in these areas, including a focused R&D effort and a dedicated lab, which is empowering the team to perform better.
One may ask, “What are the challenges of implementing this program?” and “Can’t all of this be done at a project level or even an all-hands meeting?”
Like any other initiative, reverse mentoring is not free of implementation challenges. As a team, you need to be committed to succeed in this program and not use the mentoring meetings to whine or complain about other individuals. If the mentors do have such feedback, use other modes and programs to share this feedback with the management. Once you build such objectivity into the program and a sense of trust has been established amongst all entities, including the mentor’s hierarchy of managers, the trust becomes unshakeable and will be a guiding pillar in the program’s success. Also, although other meetings can be convened to encourage knowledge sharing, by design they do not help reap all the benefits described above. So, while all-hands and team meetings are valuable in their own rights, when you implement the reverse mentoring program with the specific goals outlined above, it has its own benefits to offer.
In a nutshell, the goal of this program is to promote a positive impact for all entities—be it your management team, your employee base, the organization at large, or, indirectly, even your clients. The positive energy is viral, and you will be one happy organization about how contagious it is! Reverse mentoring is not rocket science and it can be easily replicated in an industry, domain, or organization of any scale. Gaining the support and trust of your entire organization will make this program withstand the test of time, and you can continue to improve on it with every passing year to make it even more meaningful and valuable to you and your organization.