Traditional, reverse and reciprocal mentoring – a continuing evolution

Formal mentoring programmes have been around since the early 1980s and have made a massive impact upon the careers of millions. Applications of mentoring have bloomed. For example, return to work mentoring has radically changed the experience of working mothers and ethical mentoring has supported hundreds of would-be whistleblowers in the UK National Health Service to resolve complex situations without harm to themselves or their employer organisation.

In traditional mentoring, the mentor is a more senior or more experienced person, who supports a less experienced person on part of their career journey. The essence of mentoring here is that one person uses their wisdom to help another person become wiser. In the US, mentoring is sometimes confused with sponsorship, but the two roles are largely incompatible and it’s increasingly common for companies to provide employees with both at different points in their development. In the US sponsorship construct, the social exchange in a mentoring relationship was seen as one of using influence on the mentee’s (or protégé’s) behalf in return for loyalty. In mainstream “pure” mentoring there was always an element of co-learning – to the extent that a measure of the success of a mentoring relationship was how much the mentor learned.

Reverse mentoring started as a means of enabling older executives to tap into the technical know-how of younger, more junior employees. The social exchange was then that the younger person would access the older person’s insights into the politics of the organisation and learn how to navigate a career within them. Reverse mentoring rapidly morphed into relationships aimed at educating privileged senior people about the world as viewed by people from less privileged groups. The first applications of this type were gender based, then by culture/ racial identity and more recently in the context of cognitive diversity (for example, Asperger’s).

Although there have been no large-scale studies of the impact of reverse mentoring, it does seem to have had a significant impact. The senior person in the learning dyad typically gains insights they can use in working with their direct reports and colleagues from similar backgrounds; the junior person typically learns how to work within the system that might previously have constrained them.

And there’s the rub. Helping one executive become more diversity aware and or one junior employee learn how to ‘fit in’ to the culture has a limited effect. It doesn’t change the system that created the problems in the first place. That’s where reciprocal mentoring comes in. It’s a partnership of co-learning equals, in spite of the difference in status outside the relationship. The impact of the mentoring conversations on each other is only part of the picture. Equally, if not more important is their capacity to change the system. 

They do this firstly by exploring what they can do together as a pair, through their networks. One of the reasons that change is so difficult to achieve is that different networks and interest groups don’t talk to each other. So, the reciprocal mentoring pair aim to foster those connections. 

Within a formal programme, where there is a cohort of pairs, they all meet together at intervals to share their learning and look at ways to influence the system collectively. Among issues to consider are:

·       What data do we not yet have, which would help define inequalities and bias in the system?

·       How can we make effective use of the different “lived experiences” of working here?

·       How can we identify and give “voice” to those who need it but don’t have it?

·       How can we create enough positive role models to make change stick?

·       What needs to change in the language we use?

·       Who is not included but should be and how will we make them part of the solution?

The key here is that systemic change isn’t going to happen just because it is mandated from above; nor will it happen solely as a result of pressure from below. Change one part of the system and it will find ways to revert to where it was before. But when the top and the bottom work together, anything is possible!

© David Clutterbuck 2022




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