Canadian Underwriter

Why ‘reverse mentoring’ is better than mentoring

April 25, 2023   by David Gambrill

Woman mentoring a young employee in the office

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Mentoring up, or ‘reverse mentorship,’ in which managers learn as much from employees as employees learn from their managers, is fast becoming a topic of conversation in a P&C industry characterized by significant gaps in age and professional experience.

“I’m with a start-up company that is two years [old] this year,” said an audience member attending a P&C insurance workplace panel discussion at the Insurance Institute of Canada Symposium held in Toronto last Wednesday. “And I brought some very young kids right out of school. And I’m finding, for me, I’m taking the mentor role, but I’m also the mentee. Because these kids have all kinds of skill sets that I don’t have….

“It’s an amazing opportunity. I don’t see myself retiring for quite a while, even though I should be doing that.”

Commenting on the experience that audience member relayed, Zahra Hirji, leadership coach, consultant and facilitator at The Talent Company said the success of reverse mentorship depends on two key ingredients.

“What I love about what you describe is the environment you’re in,” Hirji said. “It sounds like a lot of psychological safety in there, and there’s a lot of vulnerability…. If you don’t have those two things…you can’t have a team that’s well-functioning or high performing.

“And when you have those things, you become that much more successful. Because each of the [teams in] the organization then follow through with that. If they see [a team] doing really well on marketing and sales, they’ll say, ‘Oh, wow, what happened there?’ We’ve got to do that for our engineers. And so on and so forth…”

Related: Three things young insurance pros want from their bosses

Reverse mentoring, when coupled with coaching, creates opportunities to build knowledge broadly within an organization, “so that it becomes part of the ethos of the organization,” said Hirji. “There’s constant learning, constant growth, that’s going to help the organization move into the future.”

It also makes it easier to identify knowledge gaps.

“We’ve seen a huge spike, an incredible spike, in identifying the capability gaps and applying coaching as one of those tools to support,” said Hirji.

“By building these [reverse mentorship and coaching opportunities], you really are able to transfer knowledge. You are able to identify, where are the gaps? What are the opportunities? And how do we help each individual team, and ultimately the [entire] organization, benefit from what those gaps look like [and] translate that to, ‘Yes, we’ve got the right teams. Yes, we’ve got the right people in the right places.’”

P&C insurance organizations need to do a better job of formalizing these reverse mentorship and coaching programs into their processes, commented Allan Cole, casualty facultative manager of Canada at Gen Re.

“Mentorship is definitely an interesting topic right now because it’s something every company has to talk about more and more, given the age gaps and the capacity gap right now,” Cole said. “Mentorship is a term that every company talks about. Probably a lot of companies don’t do a great job at figuring out what the best mentorship programs look like and making sure those mentors [are effective]. Even though [these mentors] may have had a ton of industry experience or a ton of a certain kind of experience, they might not be natural teachers.

“So I guess the industry can lean on [HR] talent services to structure a meaningful mentorship program, versus, ‘Here’s your mentor, here’s your mentee — you guys figure out how to make it work.’”


Feature image from Pevide