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Three Ways Execs can Use Reverse Mentoring to Become Better Leaders

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to new research in the McKinsey Quarterly, one challenge facing execs is a lack of feedback. Robert S. Kaplan writes that because execs have reached a level where most of their colleagues are subordinates – which means they very seldom receive constructive career feedback.

He writes:

“They may also become increasingly isolated from constructive criticism—subordinates do not want to offend the boss and may believe that constructive suggestions are unwelcome and unwise. Many senior executives also unwittingly send off a ‘vibe’ that while they claim to encourage constructive criticism, they really don’t want to hear it.”

When they do receive negative feedback during official reviews, they’re often surprised to learn that negative issues are being discussed behind their back – rather than in a constructive, face-to-face manner.

Here are three ways to ensure that senior managers are getting the proactive feedback they need to lead their organizations effectively.

1. Develop a System

Because of the discomfort surrounding executive feedback that many direct reports may feel, Kaplan recommends designing a systematic process for subordinates to weigh in on executive performance.

Indeed, by implementing a system whereby the feedback process isn’t alien or out of the norm, junior people will feel more comfortable weighing in on how executives can be more effective.

2. Employ a Reverse Mentoring Strategy

Kaplan also recommends developing a network of junior individuals who can be relied upon for fair advice. His advice is to ask at least five direct reports, “What advice would you offer to help me improve my effectiveness? Please give me one or two specific and actionable suggestions. I would appreciate your advice.”

It may take some prodding, he warns, but the results can be worth it – and transformative.

The advice is similar to Evolved Employer contributor Judy Lindenberger’s suggestion for senior leaders to partner with Millennials to better understand their organizations.

She writes:

“The beauty of reverse mentoring comes from the fact that Millennials thrive on relationships. Powerful relationships are created when younger employers are engaged in teaching senior employees. Because Millennials love sharing their ideas and want to know that they are being heard, if you invite them to give you constructive feedback, you can gain a different perspective and help them learn leadership skills. Reverse mentoring can benefit both Millennials and the organizations they work for.”

3. Build a Culture of Feedback

Finally, Kaplan says, by taking the lead and modeling the reverse mentor approach, leaders can change the culture of feedback within their organizations. He writes:

“As CEOs and other senior leaders strengthen their networks of junior coaches and build better relationships with subordinates, a broader culture of coaching and learning can take root in an organization. Employees at various levels become more motivated to give upward feedback when they see that it has a direct and positive influence on both senior-leader behavior and company actions.”

Additionally, he mentioned, feedback gained through junior mentoring should not take the place of 360-degree feedback programs or the yearly review process. It should complement processes already in place – and there is a valuable role for it to play in executive development, as well as the strategic development of the company. He writes, “In a fast-changing world, you need a more active approach for getting coaching and real-time advice.”

He concludes, “By developing this mind-set, you will improve your ability to ask the right questions, as well as dramatically upgrade your effectiveness and the performance of your organization.

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