Reverse mentoring

Younger professionals often have skills and expertise that can benefit their more senior colleagues. Iwona Tokc-Wilde reports

Getting a workplace mentor can help you achieve your performance objectives. They will support you in planning, completing and recording the ACCA Practical Experience Requirement (PER) necessary to become an ACCA member. But you may also find yourself being asked to mentor your more experienced and more qualified colleagues.

A new report from ACCA, CFOs and the C Suite – Leadership Fit for the 21st Century, notes: ‘Our global interconnected and uncertain environment asks for collaboration across functional disciplines, regions, cultures and hierarchies. In particular, the challenges caused by a digital knowledge economy ask for cross-functional and cross-hierarchical collaboration; the expertise often does not sit with the C-suite, but a more junior employee further down the hierarchy who has the most Instagram followers.’

In response to the challenges and opportunities created by new technologies, social media and the rise of the millennials, some finance employers have therefore started reverse mentoring programmes. Nadim Choudhury, head of careers and employability at ifs University College, comments: ‘Accountancy, like almost every other industry, has encountered many changes in recent years, and the pace and development of technology has altered the way it operates. In this new world, younger accountants are increasingly helping their more experienced peers adapt to these changes.’

Mutual advantage

Networking on social media is one area where you can help your older colleagues. ‘Social media offers an array of opportunities in which accountants can grow their professional networks and build their own personal brands. Reverse mentoring can help older accountants get to grips with these opportunities and overcome any reservations they may have about using these services or the etiquette involved,’ says Nadim. Personal branding is becoming increasingly important for accountants. ‘But for many older accountants the concept may still be unfamiliar, so a younger reverse mentor can help in this regard,’ he says.

Younger accountants make good job interview coaches too. ‘Many experienced accountants have gone many years without going through the interview process, but could suddenly find themselves facing redundancy. You’d have recently been through a recruitment process, so can help as you are familiar with dealing with recruiters and are used to selling yourself and answering common interview questions,’ says Nadim.

As benefits go, reverse mentoring should be a two-way street. While you provide a fresh perspective and technological know-how to someone higher up in the organisation, that someone could teach you a thing or two about the business. ‘Access to a more experienced colleague can be invaluable to your career development as you will gain overall corporate knowledge and learn about leadership skills,’ says Phil Sheridan, managing director at Robert Half UK. ‘You will gain insight into the workings of the company, and an appreciation for what the senior roles are accountable for and the challenges they face.’

Becoming a reverse mentor

‘It may seem like a daunting prospect to younger employees but you should speak up if you feel you have skills that will benefit your colleagues and, in turn, the business,’ says Phil.

You can offer to be a reverse mentor even if there is no formal scheme in your organisation. ‘All that’s needed are two willing participants,’ adds Sheridan. ‘Is there someone in your company who you think you can help, for example with social media? Or perhaps you have just come back from a course and want to share what you have learned? Then put forward a case to your line manager who will help set things up.’

From your mentee, request coaching on something that will benefit you. Also, keep your line manager informed about what you are doing and how it contributes to your professional development.

For the mentoring relationship to work, you will need clear objectives and fairly regular meetings, although the arrangement need not be too formal or rigid, says Phil, adding: ‘Mentors and mentees should be at ease with the arrangement so they receive the most value from it.’

Professor Karl Moore from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University suggests some more subtle ways of reverse mentoring: ‘These include things like sending your mentee articles to read, suggestions of TED talks to watch, or things that struck you that you want to share with them. You might also want to set up a time to have coffee and discuss the material you sent them and how it might apply to the business.’

Potential pitfalls

Karl says that to be an effective mentor you must be able to listen actively. You will also need to be sensitive to the other person’s communication preferences and needs. He says: ‘It can be challenging to communicate with someone from a different generation.’ You may feel more comfortable engaging with others by email or instant messaging, while someone older may prefer to speak on the phone or to meet in person. ‘Also, some people – particularly introverts – like to read ahead; extroverts often prefer lively conversations and won’t read ahead of time,’ says Karl.

Don’t get frustrated if your mentee does not immediately grasp the skills you are trying to share. ‘Be tactful, patient, and give them encouraging feedback that does not belittle their knowledge,’ Karl says. Critiquing your mentee in a non-threatening way will help them understand your perspective.

In many ways, reverse mentoring should be easier if your organisation has a formal reverse mentoring programme. On the other hand, you may have to tread carefully when someone more senior has been talked into pairing up with you while they do not quite believe the arrangement would be of benefit to them. ‘Some older employees may be cynical about the idea of tapping into the knowledge of colleagues younger than them or who have been with the business for a short period of time, believing that their business experience will always be more valuable,’ says Phil. They may also resist receiving feedback from people with less experience.

If you find yourself in this situation, ‘you must take considerable care to show the appropriate respect for the senior mentee, also in the language you use when suggesting ideas,’ says Karl. And never stop encouraging them to share their experiences and skills with you. The relationship will be easier if they appreciate that they are also being a mentor, not just a mentee. ‘Reverse mentoring is rarely a one-way street. Both the millennial mentor and the senior executive have plenty to contribute to the conversation,’ says Karl.

"Accountancy, like almost every other industry, has encountered many changes in recent years, and the pace and development of technology has altered the way it operates. In this new world, younger accountants are increasingly helping their more experienced peers adapt to these changes"

Nadim Choudhury - University College