By turning the tables on traditional peer mentoring, reverse mentoring can activate new perspectives and lessons in the workplace.

It’s not just early career professionals that need a mentor. CEOs need mentors too. Who might be the person for the job? The aforementioned young professional, of course! Even Napoleon, one of the most iconic historical figures of all time, had a mentor that was younger than him. 

Napoleon was an outlier in an era when birthright dictated your standing in life. He rose to the pinnacle of power by the sheer merit of his military genius. The empire he created rivaled that of only Ancient Rome. He had built his empire on the ashes of the French monarchy and was an existential threat to his imperial neighbors in Europe. However, in June 1815, he was beaten by a coalition of the British and Prussian armies at the Battle of Waterloo. By that October, he arrived on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic to start his second exile. 

Napoleon was only 46 years old when he arrived in St Helena. With all hope deliberately removed by his enemies, Napoleon was facing an inevitable decline into irrelevance and eventual death. 

By chance, Napoleon ended up in the home of William Balcombe, an English merchant working for the East India Company. It was there that he struck up an unlikely friendship with Betsy, William Balcombe's 14-year-old daughter. 

In an act of astonishing bravery over dinner, Betsy dared to question him. Being young, Betsy wasn't intimidated by Napoleon's vast experience. Her directness challenged him and threw him off balance. At the lowest point in his life, Napoleon opened himself up to her influence, seeing her as an equal. 

Over the next few months, under Betsy's influence, Napoleon seemed rejuvenated. She helped him through his difficult transition into exile and gave him the energy to take on one of his most important tasks to cement his legacy: writing his memoirs, La Memorial d Saint Hélène.

Betsy asked Napoleon daring and challenging questions about the most controversial aspects of his life. What prompted him to abandon his sick troops at Jaffa during the Egyptian campaign? Did he wear armor under his uniform and did he believe in God? Perhaps these powerful reflections wouldn't have been possible without Betsy. 

This unlikely friendship is reverse mentorship in action. Reverse mentorship flips the traditional mentoring model on its head by making the younger, less experienced person the mentor and the older, more experienced person the mentee. It's about acknowledging the strengths (and innovative ways of thinking) that younger individuals can bring to a business mentoring relationship. 

January is National Mentorship Month and in this article, we explore three actions leaders can take to activate effective reverse mentorship relationships. 

1. Communication is Key

According to research by Salesforce, 86% of employees agree that ineffective communication is one of the leading reasons for workplace failure. Good communication is the foundation upon which your reverse mentorship relationship grows and develops.

Here are four actions  that activate successful communication:  

  1. Listen actively: Active listening is the ability to focus entirely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information, and respond thoughtfully. In addition, active listening ensures you’re able to engage and later recall specific details without needing information repeated.

  2. Pay attention to non-verbal communication: Non-verbal communication such as facial expression, eye contact, and hand gestures are like punctuation for your spoken message. For example, maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, and smiling encourages the person speaking to continue. This feedback makes the talker feel more at ease and allows them to communicate more easily, openly, and honestly. 

  3. Clarify and summarize your understanding: You've heard what's been said, but do you truly understand? Letting the other person know that you've understood them, or asking clarifying questions when you haven't, lets them know that you're listening and allows them the opportunity to make themselves fully understood.

  4. Listen with an open mind: Aim to understand other people's points of view, rather than just getting your message across. 


By taking these simple actions, you will create the potential for more honest and productive conversations. Listening to outside points of view allows you to experience new ideas and perspectives that will change the way you think and see the world. If you want to learn more ways to activate effective communication in a mentorship, try out our resources.


2. Collaborate on a Project 

Just as Napoleon collaborated with Betsy on aspects of his memoirs, good reverse mentorship activates collaboration between mentor and mentee. 

Identify a problem or challenge that you or your team are currently facing. Work together to create a plan to solve the problem. When coming up with your plan, consider the following:

  • What is the issue?
  • How would each of you approach the situation? 

By collaborating with someone who has a different perspective, you are committing to the possibility of producing an outcome greater than you would have thought of alone. 

3. Give and Receive Feedback 

Effective feedback, both positive and negative, is very helpful. Good leaders are not only good at accepting feedback, they deliberately ask for it. Feedback is valuable because it encourages continuous improvement.

Feedback is only helpful when it highlights the good and the bad. With this in mind, picture this scenario: You sit down with a colleague to let them know what they are doing wrong and how they could do it better. Sounds tough huh? You might be worried about hurting their feelings or not coming across well. It doesn’t need to be this way if you and your team use the SBI model to give constructive feedback by doing three actions: 

  1. Situation: Describe the situation with specifics.
  2. Behavior: Describe the behavior observed, do not try to guess at motives or causes of behavior.
  3. Impact: Describe the impact the desired behavior had. 

Using the SBI model, your mentee can provide you with some constructive feedback. In the same way they provided feedback, you can give them feedback too! Consider asking them to provide feedback on a task or project that you have recently been working on together.

Drawing on some of the techniques we discussed above on effective communication, consider the following when processing your feedback: 

  • Avoid being defensive
  • Listen actively
  • Summarize and clarify what you have learned 
  • Be approachable 
  • Ask for examples

Final thoughts

By opening himself up to an unconventional mentorship, Napoleon was able to benefit from the perspective of a younger person to great personal benefit. Personal development aside, reverse mentorship is a proven way to drive change in your organization. 

The benefits of reverse mentorship include:

  • Increasing millennial worker retention
  • Fostering inclusivity
  • Helping more senior employees with digital transformation
  • Leadership development for rising talent

At Cognican, our core methodology is based on creating the opportunity for small, sustainable actions to become workplace habits. This approach can be used in a variety of contexts including mentorship. In today's article, we showed you three actions you can take to activate an effective reverse mentorship relationship with your junior staff in your organization. 

Do you want to explore more actions you can take to be a better leader? Sign up for a free trial of our Leadership Quest, or book a consultation with us to create a custom program for your workforce.