Does the term “reverse mentoring” devalue the mentor?

present participle of men·tor

Verb: To advise or train (someone).

If there’s one thing social technologies can teach us, I believe it is this: hierarchies are so 20th Century.

I came across the term “reverse mentoring” today – not the first time I’ve heard it, indeed I was invited to “reverse mentor” an executive myself at one time, but today… it got to me. Far from being an “exciting, unique program”, I think it’s an offensive way of describing knowledge sharing and relationships. It implies a polarity in the relationship, and more than that it emphasises the idea of seniority and implies a lower value in the therefore “junior” partner.

I tweeted about this earlier, and was challenged to clarify by @SuScatty:

So I went ahead and explained:

Now, to be fair, the definitions of the words “mentor” and “mentee” typically do refer to age or organisational seniority. However, the key part is surely about sharing experience. Age can be discarded almost immediately – it’s perfectly possible and legitimate for one individual to be in a higher position than another in a company regardless of age.

hierarchiesSomething I often discuss when I give talks about the transformational power of social tools in the enterprise is that, more and more, it is relationships and open sharing of knowledge that can build innovation and progress in a company. The classic “command and control” organisational structure we’re familiar with was invented by the factory owners of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and largely perfected in the early 20th Century by Henry Ford and his need to run an efficient production line. As companies grow, this kind of structure causes stratification to occur and silos to form, ossifying the way in which a company can operate. That’s one of the reasons why, at the turn of the 21st Century, some of the more innovative organisations like W.L.Gore, Google and Whole Foods have deliberately eschewed the traditional top-down model. For more on this, I strongly recommend Gary Hamel’s short (and unimpressive-looking, but actually very insightful), book The Future of Management.

networksSocial software and tools can create flatter, more fluid organisational structures, deliver greater productivity and effectiveness, and importantly: build trust. In my own experience, it has done just that. I’ve got a formal management chain that I pay attention to from the perspective of overall direction, vision, and administrative tasks, but I have a heavily cross-functional, cross-divisional, cross-geographical network which enables me to contribute to and draw value from the wider business.

To pick on a couple of random folks in the IBM organisation, who I’m hoping (!) won’t object: by titles, Bob Sutor and Ed Brill are my “superiors”, but the facts are that I interact with them very evenly and freely across social networks, and I imagine that they might choose to seek my advice on topics that I might know more about than them if the need arose. Would I see that as “reverse mentoring”? Not really – it’s advice and support between colleagues, friends, or whatever the relationship might be. Knowledge sharing. I like to think that the exchanges of information between myself and those I provide mentoring to, and those I’m mentored by, are very much two-way – and that both sides benefit by finding support, new ways of thinking and filling out gaps in knowledge.

So back to this idea of “reverse mentoring”. Why isn’t it just about a relationship where a mentor – the one with the greater experience in or knowledge of a particular space – offers the benefit of that wisdom to a mentee? That’s just… mentoring, isn’t it? The other word is redundant – unless you are trying to reinforce that outdated organisational hierarchy you’re clinging to…?

BTW: Bob, Ed… of course, I do bow down to your superiority in all things! 🙂

Last words go to Su again:



3 thoughts on “Does the term “reverse mentoring” devalue the mentor?”

  1. Good post Andy.

    One of the interesting dilemmas of social media is that my reputation inside IBM is made more often from my presence in social media than from my day job. I run a business worth more than a rounding error on IBM’s results, yet internally most people know me as a blogger/tweeter/social guy. It means I have visibility to a lot of people and a lot of discussions I wouldn’t otherwise, and often am involved more as a consultant because of my demonstrated understanding and engagement than my title.

    On the flipside, that means I sometimes don’t get recognition for what my team and I *do* accomplish in that silo/hierarchy that we report into and live in.

    In terms of insight and direction, I formally mentor a couple of people and informally two others. But I would certainly discuss my own career and business decisions and dilemmas with those that I mentor as much as anyone, or I might come to you, or Luis Suarez, or Adam Gartenberg (who at one time worked for me), or many many other IBMers who I know but have no business relationship to/with.

    I’ve never heard the term “reverse mentoring” before and I don’t think it needs a term. We just naturally seek out the right people to help us, regardless of level, and that is part of having individual and authentic voice. More important than title.

    Now if you’d like to ask Mr. Sutor about the last time I had to come to him in a professional, hierarchical context and ask him for something, that call lasted about eight minutes 🙂

  2. I like the observation on reverse mentoring, and it’s very true. A mentoring meeting often (I think should) have positive beneficial outcomes for both participants, if only on a social level. I’ve always been amused at the perception that mentoring or indeed managing is something you have done to you, rather than a partnership with different roles played within it.

    It’s interesting timing coming on the back of the London riots where we saw the familiar leap of the mass media to blame the technology for what is fundamentally a people problem. Twitter and BlackBerry didn’t make people go out looting, they were merely effective tools for communication that highlighted more clearly a profound social malaise.

    I think it’s easy to forget that social tools are just that — technology tools to facilitate human social behaviour that is already there across physical or organisational boundaries. The technology doesn’t in itself create it. Just because someone has contacted me through Twitter doesn’t mean I am more likely to trust them more than if they used e-mail. Similarly, the Twitter model aligns nicely with how I like to interact in real life, and lets me do so with a far wider set of people in real time than I could ever manage in real life. But then that’s just me 🙂

  3. I think there is a general perception, amongst the business community and particularly in America, that mentoring is, someone older and wiser sharing their experience with someone younger and less experienced. For example, here in Austin we have a couple of major programs that are really nothing more than mentoring, but they are called Big Brothers and Big Sisters etc. So I think those personality types that are comfortable in hierarchical structures, and dealing with people as seniors and juniors would find it difficult to explain why they are being mentored by someone younger and, possibly less experienced. Both to themselves, and their peer group.

    So, there is the label, what do you call it. And there is thhe action itself, what is it. I think you are bang-on in relation to the help you are giving to, say, an executive, its mentoring. If they want to conceive of it as reverse-mentoring, where is the harm in that?

    I think the problem you describe is a somewhat unique one often found amongst individual contributors, ie non-managers in the tech sector, is that we are often personality types that prefer to treat people as equals. Despite some obvious characteristics I was required to develop as I progressed in my technical career, I am a classic INTP who has developed an ability to do some extrovert things but I’m not, even now, an ENTP. In fact, I would say that in recent years I’m returning to INTP more and more.

    In dealing with those I mentor, I’m entirely comfortable with them as peers, no matter what their age, status, level or title. I don’t work with senior executives nearly as much these days, and with one notable exception, none of my current crop are ever on social media, and the mostly don’t make themselves available even for informal meetings. Thus, I’m not able to say how they’d react. However, my past experience, for example, when I was regularly involved in late Sunday afternoon calls with a very senior executive on the subject of Linux, and before that, the technical issues around offshoring, and getting talent overseas, if my relationship with that executive had been called “reverse-mentoring” rather than Q&A, education or mentoring, it was non-issue for me, at least I was comfortable that they had the advice to help them make the best decision based on the information available.

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