How Cisco Set Up a Reverse Mentoring Program

Mentoring is an old concept, but some companies have experimented with reverse mentoring, in which junior level employees teach their superiors. In 2011, Cisco launched a six-month reverse mentoring program to "provide an open and honest environment to spark discussions around creating an inclusive work environment." 

31 mentors and 31 mentees met to exchange knowledge related to communication and style, leadership, and change management, with the ultimate goal of improving diversity awareness and inclusive practices. The program was a success, building camaraderie and helping all participants better understand the organization's operations and challenges. Laura Earle, Business Operations Manager, broke down the ten steps Cisco used to set up a reverse mentorship program.

How to Set Up a Reverse Mentoring Program

  1. Find out the challenge you’re trying to solve. Make it clear what business issue reverse mentoring will address so you can get your teams on board. 
  2. Measure your current status. Set up some metrics so you understand where you are with your issue and where you’re going. For instance, if you want to increase diversity in the workplace by X%, Y% of candidates for an open position should come from a diverse group. 
  3. Get a champion. The program is usually more effective if an influential figure in the organization sponsors it and gets others to participate. 
  4. Recruit a balance of mentors and mentees. Attract mentees first so that you'll know how many mentors you'll need. If you still end up with too many mentors, create a waiting list so they can be invited to participate in the next round.
  5. Bring mentors and mentees together. Have your champion call a meeting to bring mentors and mentees together. In this meeting, the champion should go over why the program is important, and review goals.
  6. Support your mentors. Provide mentors with resources that include mentoring tips and proposed timelines. 
  7. Check in with everyone. Set up private, mid-way checkpoint meetings to see how both mentors and mentees are getting along with the program. See what is and isn’t working, and amend the process from there.
  8. Host a review. At the end of the program, call everyone in for a final feedback session. Ask what they’d do differently next time, what they learned, and what they achieved.
  9. Go over the numbers. Did you achieve your key metrics? When presenting your results, explain why you did or didn’t, and what you’d do to achieve these goals next time. 
  10. Decide what's next. If the program achieved its goals, plan how you’ll set up the next program, taking into consideration the first round's feedback. 

Takeaway: Reverse mentoring can provide real value to the organization, but like any program, it needs metrics and senior-level support to succeed.

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