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Reverse Mentoring and the Leader-Follower Theory

It is Monday morning; you are hard at work and an email arrives from your boss informing you that the company will start embracing new technologies in an effort to stay competitive. Reviewing the list of proposed technologies, you suddenly realize that you are not as tech-savvy as you once thought you were. Equally daunting is that you are now in charge of making sure that the employees are trained on these new emerging technologies with no money in your budget to pay for training.

Managers and small business owners are facing the reality that they are increasingly out of touch with modern technology and the related lexicon of the under-35 crowd. Navigating through the rapidly changing world of blogs, podcasts, social networking, tablet computers, smart phones and other technologies can be like learning a foreign language. Equally frustrating is the fact that most leaders have little time or resources for specific training on the ever-advancing technologies and ideas. As leaders increasingly face these challenges, one emerging solution to this quandary is that of reverse mentoring.

Reverse mentoring is simply the process of pairing more senior employees with younger employees in an effort to help the senior staff gain insight into the emerging technologies, mindsets and ideas. Traditionally, mentoring has been seen as a one-way street where a more knowledgeable and sometimes more senior individual passes an experience on to a subordinate or younger individual for the purpose of learning. According to Chip Bell, the author of Managers as Mentors, mentoring is no more than the process of helping someone learn something that they did not already know and in a much faster format than if they had to learn it on their own. Mentoring unto itself is defined as a trusted advisor, coach or even a wise teacher. Reverse mentoring takes the concept of mentoring and turns it on end affording more senior managers first-hand experience from a younger perspective. Before you judge the idea of reverse mentoring and its value, stop and think about how many times a day we actually use this concept. Have you ever asked a child how to use a DVD player, iPod, the computer or a software program? I would venture to guess that there are more people who have used this form of mentoring than care to admit. If you can ask a seven year old how to turn on the HDTV and Blue Ray DVD, then why not ask a 20 or 30-something who is much more tech-savvy to help you learn something you don’t already know?

Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

There are many benefits to reverse mentoring within an organization. From an economic perspective, it serves as a cost effective way to improve the staff’s technology skills. The simple idea of using the resources you already have within the organization is just smart business sense. Why go outside the organization and pay for a high priced consultant or trainer when a subordinate might be the most sensible answer?

Reverse mentoring engages an organization in an open dialogue. It encourages the flow of information and ideas at all levels of the organization. It helps more senior leaders to understand not only technology but also how younger individuals think and use technology in their lives. When an organization can see through the eyes of their younger staff, they open up a greater understanding of what the possibilities are for the future. Reverse mentoring builds the ultimate learning opportunities for both the mentee and the mentor. Through effective mentoring, the mentee can then become the mentor to someone else regardless of their leadership status.

Barriers to Effective Reverse Mentoring

New concepts are not without their barriers. There are several barriers to the effective use of reverse mentoring, such as ego, corporate environment, and archaic management styles. The most effective way to utilize reverse mentoring and avoid such barriers is to first understand the leader-follower theory. The leader-follower theory is a concept where at any given time a leader becomes a follower and the follower the leader. Then the leader and follower return to their original roles. At no time does the leader lose authority but simply turns to someone who is more capable of a specific task. Much like how delegation of authority works, a leader delegates to a subordinate to teach or mentor them in a specific area that the subordinate is knowledgeable in. This role reversal recognizes that at any given time that a follower might have something to contribute to the organization that makes them a leader of the moment. Such an example would be that of reverse mentoring where a younger, less seasoned staff member holds a skill or knowledge base that would benefit the more senior staff member. The key: don’t let your ego get ahead of you. This advice is great for not only the mentee but also the mentor. For the mentor it can be an awkward position to be in to teach your boss something that they don’t know. Setting an ego aside and saying, “I don’t know it all” is helpful to the process. Equally as helpful is when the mentor understands their role is temporary, yet builds a rapport with their more senior counterparts.

Rules of Engagement

While reverse mentoring has traditionally formed informally over time, effective reverse mentoring should begin with a plan. It is important to articulate expectations from both the mentee and the mentor. There must be mutually accepted rules of engagement set forth. These rules can cover everything from the time and location that the mentoring is to take place to whom will take the lead on projects, provide feedback, and how is it determined that the needs and desires of the mentoring agreement have been met. Finally, there must be a genuine desire to learn from each other. If there is no cooperation in this process it will be less than effective. There must be trust in each other and a full level of transparency that there are no hidden agendas.


As technology continues to rapidly change, the need for more creative learning processes will grow. Reverse mentoring is a powerful and cost effective solution to this challenge. Utilizing the skills within your organization can help you increase your competitive edge within your industry. Set the ego aside, look at the staff around you, determine their abilities, and then develop a plan to utilize reverse mentoring that will ultimately benefit the entire organization. The senior staff will have a greater opportunity to gain knowledge, not just on the subject of technology, but on the subordinates as well as social trends and norms. As a result, the subordinate staff will feel more appreciated and in turn likely become greater assets to the organization. If done right, reverse mentoring can be extremely rewarding for all that are involved in this powerful cost effective process. Reverse mentoring may be the most important step an organization takes in their effort to remain competitive in an increasingly fast-paced technological world.


Philip A Foster, MA is a professional life and leadership coach with Maximum Change Inc. He works with leaders to develop their purpose, life balance and achieve greater success. Encouraging leaders to take active and consistent steps toward reaching goals and objectives. Specializing in Organization and Strategic Leadership.

Email | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Skype: philip.a.foster | (615) 216-5667

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