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Beyond the Boardroom
Reverse mentoring can avoid tunnel vision that may hinder growth.
Way back in 1999, Jack Welch, then-chief executive officer at General Electric, realized this new thing—the internet—wasn’t going away. In fact, the internet could be a game changer for businesses like his. But top leaders, mostly of the same generation as Welch, didn’t know how to enter a portal or run a search, much less have a conversation around outreach potential.
Thus, the dawn of reverse mentoring.
With this role-reversal strategy, the executive or leader becomes the mentee, the staff member the mentor. Leaders meet one-on-one with employees from diverse backgrounds to get their perspectives on their jobs and the company.

Their way of looking at things can help leaders strengthen the organization and retain and attract employees, said Patrice Gordon. She’s director of commercial strategy development and Virgin Atlantic and is also an executive reverse-mentoring coach.

But that change isn’t happening nearly as fast in C-suites and boardrooms. “It’s important that isolated, often white, top leaders get to hear about others’ perspectives, their struggles, career hopes, and setbacks,” she added.

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Reverse mentoring can be an anecdote to the tunnel vision that can hinder company growth, Gordon said.
“Without it, organizations could fall into a trap of stale thinking, and, with that, under-representation in the workplace and policies that could alienate those groups, not only in regard to age, race, and gender but to all kinds of viewpoints,” Gordon said.
Her book “Reverse: Removing Barriers and Building Belonging in the Workplace” was recently released on Hachette press.

A year after Gordon began working at Virgin Atlantic, then-chief executive officer Craig Kreeger asked her to mentor him.

He had no black women in his inner circle, he explained to Gordon. “And he thought my perspective could be key to building a more inclusive culture at Virgin Atlantic,” she said.
She and Kreeger discovered some similarities: Gordon had emigrated with her family from Jamaica to the United Kingdom when she was three years old; Kreeger was a second-generation Irish American.
But they didn’t spend much time there. They quickly moved on to the things they didn’t have in common.
The real power of reverse mentoring comes from seeing difference rather than similarities, Gordon said.

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“For the mentee, the goal is: ‘I get to meet with someone with a role different from the one I have followed. It gives me insights into a different way of thinking,’” she added.
The mentee sets the meeting agenda. They might ask their mentor about their career path, major obstacles they’ve overcome, their poignant memories, and their hopes and dreams.
“Or, maybe they’d like to understand how specific company policies affect their mentor directly or indirectly,” Gordon said.
The meetings can be scary at first, she acknowledged. She was speaking with the CEO of her company in a new and unfamiliar way. Meanwhile, Kreeger had to step back from his usual role. He had to catch himself from offering her advice or speaking in an authoritative manner.

Finding the right match is also crucial, Gordon added. What could be seen as oddball matchups are important: a finance executive paired with a designer from the marketing department, for instance. Those two worldviews would probably collide, and then sort themselves out with growth and understanding.

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Companies also need to set up ground rules, spell out expectations and invest in training, she added.

More than two decades after Welch formed a reverse mentorship program at General Electric, it’s safe to say new employees know about the internet. Now, most corporates programs focus on diversity rather than technology.

For example, UnitedHealth Group’s seven-year-old program pairs eight senior insurance executives with eight millennials. The average age gap is 25 years.

Companies as disparate as Deloitte, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, and, of course, General Electric are among the major organizations with programs.

Looking back, Gordon can see her mentor definitely benefited from their meetings; as did she.

“I found my relationship with Craig allowed me to have a sense of ownership and leadership in Virgin,” Gordon said.  “And for Craig, it shows that even when you’re at the pinnacle of you’re career, there’s still more to learn.”

Jean Thilmany is a science and technology writer in Saint Paul, Minn.

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