As I write this, Executive Platforms organizes events for senior leaders relating to Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing, supply chains in both North America and Europe, Technology, Human Resources, Finance, Food Safety and Quality, Sustainability, and Manufacturing.
It is surprisingly easy to find common issues and challenges that people in positions of authority in these different roles have in common not just within their own disciplines, but across sectors. At some point as you rise through an organization, the specifics of your profession must include universals about leadership and people. You can have a conversation about a leader’s responsibilities and soft skills with just about anyone who attends an Executive Platforms event, and they are going to be touching on a lot of the same points.
It can be surprisingly hard to find something ‘new’ when we talk about things people all have in common, but I think I may have something worth exploring today. Over the last few years, I have noticed more and more emphasis being put on separating mentoring and sponsoring into two different relationships that do very different things for very different reasons, and last week I had an executive extol the virtues of reverse-mentoring to me in such fulsome terms that it really got me thinking.
I hope most of the time someone gets me re-evaluating and re-examining my understanding of a thing I talk about all the time, I end up writing about it. I certainly plan to do that in this case.
Dividing and Defining
Let’s start with a breakdown of what we mean by each term, and what makes them different.
Mentoring is probably the one everyone is familiar with, and I expect many people reading this have at some point been both a mentor and a mentee. Mentorship is when a more senior person in an organization takes a more junior person under their wing, teaches them things with the benefit of their experience and institutional knowledge, and prepares them for greater things in their working life. Mentorship comes in all shapes and sizes and at all scales, and it can be started top-down or bottom-up, formally or informally. There are companies that encourage their senior leadership to identify future leaders and approach them for mentoring, and of course there are many individuals who join a company and actively go looking for a mentor.
However it begins, it should be of enormous value to the mentee, and it should also help the mentor remain connected to how the business works through the eyes of someone closer to the grassroots while also building and reinforcing a network of rising talent that will pay dividends down the road. Sometimes mentorship works within a pre-defined framework and timelines, and sometimes it can turn into an ongoing personal and professional relationship spanning years and even maintaining a bond as people move from company to company. Mentoring can be one of the most powerful connections in people’s professional lives, and whole books have been written about how to do it well.
For us, it is just the starting point of the larger conversation we are going to have today, so we are going to move on, although I promise a few more thoughts on best practices a little later on.
Sponsoring is mentoring kicked up a notch with conscious intent. Sponsoring is about the sponsor actively working to advance the career of their protégé, giving them access to education, opportunities, projects, and programs that will accelerate their rise through the organization and the industry. There are mentor-mentee relationships that do many of the same things sponsor-protégé relationships do, but if there is not active communication, collaboration, and forward-planning, a mentor-mentee relationship is never going to achieve as much accidentally as sponsoring will achieve deliberately. Now there are good reasons why not every mentoring relationship can or should be a sponsoring relationship, and we will get into that, but for the purposes of this first definition and distinction, let’s have the key takeaway being sponsorship is an optional, goal-oriented, and less common further extension of mentorship.
Reverse-Mentoring is a term I have heard for many years that until as recently as last week I had not given the conscious thought it deserves. Reverse-mentoring is when an individual in a position of seniority and authority realizes they do not understand something well enough to make informed decisions about how it relates to their function in the business and then identifies and recruits a subject matter expert below them in the organization to educate them on it.
At first blush this might seem to be an awkward interaction. Imagine yourself as the senior executive who must approach a relatively junior member of the team and confess you don’t really know what they do for a living? Now imagine yourself as that junior employee whose boss’s boss’s boss has come up to you asking for help from a place of ignorance about the thing you do all day every day, and you have no idea what their baseline of knowledge or capability might be, but you know you need to give them exactly what they want while striking the right personal and professional tone throughout the interaction?
Part of successful reverse-mentoring is side-stepping that whole awkward power imbalance, but we will get there.
Returning to ‘what it is,’ for the moment, it is worth saying reverse-mentoring is not about a senior executive who has somehow risen through the hierarchy lacking fundamental skills and expertise. To use the example of Supply Chain as a discipline, there were very, very few ‘Supply Chain’ programs in post-secondary education three decades ago. Most of the Generation X and Baby Boomer executives holding leadership positions in supply chain organizations today have lived through their professional discipline consolidating from among a number of parallel and connected business functions and shaping an educational program —often with their own direct and indirect input— to produce graduates capable of covering a wide range of roles and responsibilities straight out of school, rather than beginning in one area of focus and learning other areas on the job, as they had to do in their own careers.
As a further illustration from the world of supply chain professionals, there is a whole generation of senior executives who can tell you very clearly the first time they had to do a procurement job, and there are even some whose career has never included that function. Should they consider themselves procurement experts three decades into their supply chain careers just because today’s supply chain graduates have taken procurement courses in the same way they have taken logistics courses and forecasting courses? Of course not. Now add how much technology has changed even in the last decade, and you can quickly imagine just how much practical and theoretical knowledge exists in the team reporting up to a senior leader who was working with a different set of tools, tactics, and technologies when they performed that role for their company at that stage in their careers.
Why should there be any hesitation in tapping into the expertise of people who know more about it then they do? You might argue it is the best and perhaps only way to stay on top of what they need to know to make the right decisions in a rapidly changing business landscape. You could also say even in the rare cases where someone has been promoted up to a leadership position without all the training and competencies they need to perform well, reverse-mentoring could be a powerful tool for a committed individual to achieve the difficult task of extracting themselves from a Peter Principle scenario, as we have discussed at some length on this blog in the past.
Best Practices for Best Results
A couple of times in the definitions I promised to expand upon ways to do each of these things well. Let’s get into that.
- Both mentor and mentee should be aware of the relationship they are trying to build. Whether it’s a formal thing supported by the company, or an informal and perhaps even organic development between two individuals, there should be a conversation acknowledging what is going on, what they hope to achieve, and how they want to work towards success. Thinking of someone as your mentor or mentee does not make it so, and acting like someone is your mentor or mentee without their knowledge is likely to produce contrary results to what you intended. Have some clarity of purpose and some honest conversations at the start, and things will be much better positioned for greatness to come.
- Throughout the relationship, the mentor and mentee should be comfortable communicating with one another, and they should have the ability to talk to one another about the mentoring relationship separate from their normal day-to-day working relationship and job functions.
- Because mentoring is the broadest and most open-ended of the three we want to talk about today, I don’t want to impose a lot of rules that we can then suggest best practices for, but I encourage every mentor and mentee to have periodic meetings about how things are going, review what is working and what is not finding success, discussing course corrections and new ideas, and generally treating the pairing as a shared project that while both may have a personal connection and stake in, remains a work task with steady progress expectations. One of the most common ways mentoring can break down is when the level of personal friendship between the two individuals —ranging anywhere from indifferent to familial— gets in the way of the purpose of the thing, which is to help prepare the mentee for their professional future.
- If it was important that the mentor and mentee were on the same page from the get-go, you can imagine how much more important it is for a sponsor and protégé to understand what they want for and from each other, and why. The sponsor should be clear why they plan to help the protégé advance in their careers —what quality sets them apart from other candidates, and why is this a sponsoring relationship rather than a mentoring relationship?— and the protégé should also have a clear understanding of where the sponsor plans to help them get to and actively opt in to that shared vision and commit to working hard to achieving it. A lot of wasted effort and hard feelings can come from a disconnect at the beginning. That is not to say further conversations cannot shape and course-correct the trajectory of the sponsoring efforts, but crystal clarity of intent and motivation should be mandatory whenever mentorship is becoming full-fledged sponsorship.
- There are going to be qualities that made the protégé the right candidate for sponsorship, and there are going to be things that protégé needs to succeed that both the sponsor and protégé know about and can talk about comfortably on an ongoing basis. Whether that’s formal education or technical knowhow or work experience or soft skills, the only way to effectively sponsor someone’s accelerated rise through the organization is to be able to talk about pros and cons openly, reinforcing the pros and improving the cons until they also become pros. Much more so that mentorship, sponsorship can be seen as a journey with known waypoints marking time and distance to a planned destination. The more clear and honest the sponsor and protégé can be about where they are, where they are going, and what still needs to be done to get there, the better.
- As with mentoring and sponsoring, it begins with a clear conversation, but here the added wrinkle can be the power imbalance both between someone who is admitting ignorance to someone with a lot of knowledge, and also between someone who might well be very senior within a hierarchy seeking help from a subordinate. I will emphasize there are two people who might well feel awkward about this first conversation. The senior executive is admitting they don’t understand something important, and the team member is being put in the position of their boss asking them for a favor that is not actually a favor, but their time together should be convivial. There does not have to discomfort, but it would be understandable that there could be discomfort, and so it falls to the senior executive as the person initiating this relationship to set the right tone, be clear about the ask, how the working relationship will function, and it would probably also be very helpful to let the subject matter expert know why they have been approached and what that should tell them about how the organization sees and understands them.
- Reverse-mentoring much more so than mentoring or sponsoring is probably not destined to be a long-term ongoing personal and professional relationship, so it is worth exploring what both parties think is a reasonable amount of time to achieve their objectives, and while having that conversation the senior leader should also explore what the subject matter expert might want out of the exchange. Is there an opportunity for this reverse-mentoring to evolve into mentoring? If that is not something the subject matter expert wants —and the senior executive should in no way feel rejected by this— is there something else that might motivate and compensate them for their enthusiastic participation? In all partnerships, it is a good idea for all parties to be working towards a shared positive outcome based on their own motivations. The subject matter expert should not be working out of obligation to the company alone. What would move the subject matter expert to view adding this extra task to their existing workload a positive thing?
Whether we are talking about mentoring, sponsoring, or reverse-mentoring, it is important at all times to remember we are talking about people. Great things happen when people are working towards the same objectives with clarity, clear communication, and constant collaboration. Things can get muddled very quickly when one person tries to make the other do something they don’t want to do. The best partnerships are when both sides of the relationship are actively invested and committed to its success.
Understanding what you want.
Understanding how you want to get there.
Understanding where you are on your way to achieving your objective.
Understanding where the other person on that journey with you is, what they want, and what they are doing.
Understanding. Twenty-four hundred words later, and the underlying message of three great professional relationships can be boiled down to one word.
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.