How to take advantage of reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring – where senior mentors learn about new tools and techniques from junior mentees and mentees gain valuable knowledge from top executives – is becoming increasingly popular, but to be successful objectives and a clear framework must be set up-front.

Senior marketers cannot afford to take their eye off the ball regarding their brand’s overarching strategy, but for many marketing directors and CMOs, that also means they quickly lose touch with the profession’s fast-moving specialist disciplines.

Consequently, reverse mentoring is increasingly being used as a training method to educate more experienced marketers about some of the newer tools and techniques they have at their disposal, while at the same time giving junior staff valuable experience of conversing with top-level executives.

“When you get to a top leadership position in the current environment you’re often leading people who are doing jobs that you have never done and that probably didn’t exist when you were their age,” says Sherilyn Shackell, founder of The Marketing Academy. “But these people are experts in their various different functions, so mentoring is a great opportunity for [senior marketers] to get real insight into what these roles are about.”

Indeed, Troy Warfield, chief commercial officer at Avis Budget Group EMEA, who has long been a believer in the value of reverse mentoring, says “it keeps you grounded and highly relevant”. He was responsible for setting up a reverse mentoring programme in his previous role at Kimberly-Clark and continues to do it at Avis.

“New [digital businesses] are springing up on a daily basis, making older players redundant, so unless you keep on top of it tomorrow’s growth opportunity could pass you by fairly quickly,” he warns.

Given the pace of change, Warfield says it is not uncommon for people to meet every two to three weeks in order to stay ahead of what is happening in the industry.

Mentoring should be a two-way relationship

Roisin Donnelly, brand director for Northern Europe at Procter & Gamble, is another believer in the value of mentoring, having benefited from the guidance of mentors throughout her career, as well as mentoring junior marketers. She says that whether you are the mentor or the mentee, relationships have to be two-way.

“I have learned a lot about myself and the business from each of these relationships,” says Donnelly. “I’ve learned a lot about digital, which has really helped me in my work; I’ve learned about different mind sets and approaches; and I’ve learned about the gender challenges for both women and men.”

Although the programme is not gender specific, Donnelly says over 75% of women in P&G UK have a counsellor, advisor or mentor.

“We are actively building diversity at P&G because we know it creates business results and drives better creativity, and mentoring is an important part of that,” she says. “It works incredibly well for us and over the years has helped us improve retention and the gender split.”

When connecting people, depending on their goals, the business either looks to pair employees with very similar styles so they can learn from each other, or people who operate in a completely different way to enable them to gain new skills.

“It’s one of the things we’ve identified as being critical in helping people progress their career. We promote from within as we want to retain the best talent so we start from day one,” she says.

O2 owner Telefónica believes the opportunity to share knowledge should be available across the company, not just to senior staff

The marketing division at P&G has formal and informal initiatives set up to help mentors and mentees connect. The company runs a ‘speed dating’ event to enable people to meet managers who they may not speak to in their own role, for example, to help them find the right match.

Even if a mentoring session is not set up to benefit the more experienced marketer, The Marketing Academy’s Shackell believes they will undoubtedly learn something from the experience.

“Being able to have quite an intimate, off-the-record conversation with someone younger, irrespective of sex or function, will teach them something that they can utilise in their own role, since they are mentoring someone from a different generation,” she says.

For this reason she urges younger marketers not to be afraid of approaching senior individuals as, more often than not, they will try to find the time, explains Shackell.

“The more experienced and higher up the ladder, the more time great leaders will make for mentoring because they know it is a two-way street and that they will get something too,” she says.

“[Younger marketers] need to be proactive about identifying people they can learn from, though, in the knowledge that they have a lot to offer as well. Mentors need to understand what’s going on in the younger generation and in the new roles that are coming up, so they shouldn’t underestimate what the mentor can get from them.”

Establish a clear framework

In order to make the relationship a success however, both parties need to set out a clear framework that it is time-bound so the mentor knows exactly how much commitment they are being asked to give. She also suggests the mentee “should do some real thinking and mindful research before the session to make sure they get the most out of it” and should “frame a couple of really great questions to ask their mentor”.

Likewise, she advises senior marketers to do preparation on their younger counterpart’s background and career. She explains: “Any knowledge they have of each other before they go into the first mentoring session will just add value to what they get out of it.”

While P&G’s Donnelly is all for establishing mentoring relationships, she believes it must be with someone you know.

“There is no point in asking a complete stranger to mentor you,” she warns. “I get LinkedIn invites from students and people starting off their career that I’ve never met before but [that won’t work because] you have to have a relationship and an understanding.”

Donnelly has known her own mentors for 20 years. She has three in total, two women and one man, all of whom now work outside of P&G. One is an ex-boss, one is an ex-peer and one is from an advertising agency. All of them have been invaluable, she says, when learning to deal with problems in different ways, whether they are in her work, career or personal life.

Investing in experts

Jonathan Earle, head of customer strategy and development at Telefónica UK, agrees that the opportunity to share knowledge and expertise should no longer be restricted to senior staff. He says O2 is committed to recruiting and investing in people who are “experts in their space”, whether they are a graduate or someone with more experience, and everyone is encouraged to share their expertise with anyone at any level.

“The days of someone aged 40-plus dictating what should be happening without listening to opinions and experts are long gone,” he says. “I don’t have all of the answers so I fully expect and promote all members of my team to share their expertise. We do that through weekly one-to-ones and team events.”

O2 also runs ‘mystery lunches’ that match people from different divisions and levels of seniority to share their experience and knowledge. Last year, a group of employees on its graduate programme teamed up with the executive committee to teach them about being a digital native and introduce them to various apps, setting them challenges as part of the process.

Kiran Kishore was on the O2 graduate programme at the time of taking part and has since been promoted to creative and media executive within the marketing department. She views the experience as a “fantastic opportunity” to interact with people at a much higher level of the business, which she acknowledges is not an experience graduates are normally given (see Q&A).

Although Shackell agrees that a senior marketer will gain much from mentoring within their own company, she believes they can get even more by teaming up with people from outside their business and industry. She says: “If they’re mentoring a younger, less experienced person from a different sector, they are going to be benefiting from the knowledge of that younger, less experienced person from a completely different viewpoint, so they can’t fail to learn something.”

More: How marketers at all levels can get the most out of reverse mentoring