Finding a mentor who can serve as a guide for one’s career is a goal for many young professionals. But reverse mentoring—where the younger, less experienced employee becomes the mentor—can be even more beneficial, as both parties will benefit. This is especially true in technology-driven fields such as the life sciences industry.
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, popularized the concept of reverse mentoring in 1999, according to to Forbes. As the Internet was just becoming popular, he wanted new employees to help senior executives learn how to navigate the new technology.
At the time, Welch could not have known how much that early technology would evolve over the next two decades. But the role that technology plays in every aspect of a professional’s life today makes the concept of reverse mentoring more applicable now than ever.
Pharmaceutical giants and startups have implemented their own versions of these programs, hoping to help their employees help themselves.
Takeda is one of these companies. Charlotte Owens, MD, vice president and head of the Center for Health Equity and Patient Affairs at Takeda, said BioSpace she sees reverse mentoring as a way to further diversify and build on the talent the company already has.
“At Takeda, our Center for Health Equity and Patient Affairs partners internally and externally to identify and eliminate health disparities—and that’s about mentoring and practice, too,” Owens said. “We recognize the need for diverse talent and see reverse mentoring as another opportunity to tap into it.”
Owens is also a clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine, where he trains and educates medical students and residents. She emphasized the importance of mentoring in a young employee’s career.
A “Nothing is impossible” mindset.
“Mentoring allows you to borrow someone else’s dream until you can clearly identify and take on your own,” Owens said. “It provides a space to create, gather advice and have candid conversations, all of which are important components of advancing your professional career and building professional resilience.”
She also emphasized the value of reverse mentoring for more experienced team members. It’s no surprise that new hires can help their mentees become more efficient through technology, but Owens said there’s something new hires tend to have that’s even more valuable — a positive outlook. .
Younger employees tend to have a ‘nothing is impossible’ mentality, without the same fear or limitations that we acquire over time.
Disruption of the typical hierarchy
However, there are challenges in running successful reverse mentoring programs, especially when they are first introduced. The most obvious challenge is the inevitable tension that comes from disrupting the typical hierarchy or status quo. While it can be difficult for anyone to accept constructive criticism, it’s made worse when there are unusual power dynamics at play.
Another potential challenge in these programs is the lack of common interests, especially in an organization that does not prioritize diversity. Owens noted that typically, younger mentees will emulate their mentors, and it’s much easier for them to do so when that mentor has a similar background or shared experiences. But when this is not possible, one or both parties may become frustrated or discouraged and lose what they might have learned.
“Studies show that we tend to choose career paths based on where we can see ourselves and people like us…it’s important that we create a pathway for more diverse talent within these programs and allow younger generations to see someone as those who succeed in a field that they otherwise might not have considered entering,” said Owens.
Cultivate a safe space for honest growth
The ultimate goal of traditional mentoring and reverse mentoring is growth. And to achieve any kind of growth, there is a level of openness and willingness to change that must come first.
Fortunately, there is a way to help employees achieve this growth – by creating an environment in which they feel safe. According to Owens, the first step is to cultivate a space in which employees can feel comfortable being honest without fear of retaliation or resentment.
After that, it’s even more important for employees old and new to accept feedback without judgment and learn from it, Owens said.
“Sometimes, getting honest feedback can be difficult, but it’s what’s needed to better understand people, your team, and even yourself,” Owens said.
And when a reverse mentoring program is successful, it can have a ripple effect, affecting every aspect of the company.
“It’s this kind of effort [in creating a safe environment] throughout the mentoring program that drives better productivity, motivation and increased employee contributions that are valued throughout the organization,” Owens concluded.