Reverse mentoring to the rescue
When Umicore rolled out the digital workplace initiative a few months before the spread of COVID-19, we didn't realize how perfect the timing would be. Embracing new digital tools meant changing the work culture among our colleagues and installing a new digital culture at senior and executive management. To reach these high-level colleagues, we flipped a classic playbook. The usual top-down mentoring programs had already been a success at Umicore, so why not try reverse mentoring instead?
People often think that age and years of experience in an organization are linked to knowledge – the longer you work, the more you know and the less you need to learn. However, younger employees bring fresh perspectives often with new knowledge, skills and expertise that can be shared with more established colleagues. In Umicore’s first reverse mentoring program, a younger ‘digital hero’ was paired with an executive or senior manager. The mentors guided their mentees in the use of new digital tools that enable collaboration from anywhere in the world.
Katharina Brodt, at that time our Head of Digital Workplace, had picked-up on the idea of reverse mentoring from online thought leaders who had successfully implemented a digital workplace across their corporations. “Instead of the typical class-room training, reverse mentoring allows you to open-up and have direct contact in a more comfortable space where you can create a trusting, professional friendship”. Supporting both mentees and mentors, she realized that creating this new kind of relationship for some of them was challenging, especially since it worked against traditional office dynamics. But with time, the participants established a relationship where the mentees felt comfortable to reach out when they needed help.
Once our digital-savvy mentors were ready after reinforcing their mindset on how to approach and proceed with top management, 25 pairs were established in the first phase. Our colleague Ella Pei from China felt a bit nervous at the beginning as she barely had any previous contact with senior managers. However, to her surprise she saw how open her mentee was to reverse mentoring. “She was willing to have conversations and eager to find out new digital tools. What is very rewarding is to see how she implements the tools and how she became a digital ambassador herself leading by example.”
Another of our digital heroes, Quentin Poncelet, fully supports reverse mentoring because it’s a real win-win for both parties: “As a mentor you create a relationship with a senior manager gaining knowledge of the business and the company while expanding your network. As a mentee you can ask questions without exposure, getting quick and individual support while increasing digital literacy and building a relationship outside of your reporting line.”
Reverse mentoring can be done at any level within the organization, breaking the traditional format, creating an inclusive workplace, closing generational and skills gaps, and creating opportunities to learn. After the positive outcome, a second wave was launched. Ultimately, this initiative broke new grounds at Umicore increasing our organizational resilience by developing new, more agile ways of working responding to the COVID threat and new, more diverse relationships among staff.