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Understanding ‘reverse mentoring’

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Naomi Monteiro, vice-president of HR at Kimberly-Clark, Asia Pacific, shares how the company has turned traditional mentoring upside down by enhancing the untapped potential of its younger workers.

Reverse mentoring is a process that reverses traditional mentoring by pairing younger staff to mentor senior leaders – a concept that provides the senior leader insights through the empowerment of younger employees who otherwise may not have the opportunity, or confidence, to share.

Reverse mentoring at Kimberly-Clark

Kimberly-Clark is one of the leading manufacturers of consumer products, both in Asia and globally, producing daily essentials such as baby diapers, feminine pads, adult diapers and tissue products under the household brands of Huggies, Kotex, Depend, Kleenex and Scott.

To keep up with the aggressive growth of the Kimberly-Clark business in Asia Pacific, it is critical for us to implement strategies that redesign conventional talent solutions to fuel strategic business capabilities – not just HR outcomes.

As a result, we are always looking and open to adopting new approaches for talent and leadership development that support our growth plans, with reverse mentoring being one of them.

The reverse mentoring programme is tailored to help executives tap strategic product, customer and technological insights that younger talent naturally possesses, but rarely has the opportunity to share. It also breaks down the traditional barriers of top-down hierarchy in the workplace to promote a healthy, free-flowing exchange of ideas.

The programme is designed to maximise intelligence exchanged by matching mentors and mentees based on differences across eight criteria: age, function, gender, nationality, education background, personality, lifestyle, and hobbies and interests. This matching, based on the supply and demand of strategic intelligence, as well as on diversity of backgrounds, allows for highly productive and relevant exposure for both groups.

We plan introductory activities and initiatives for mentors and mentees that help them to connect with each other as well as clearly define the rules of engagement that both parties commit to. Kimberly-Clark structures reverse mentoring guides around strategic input that mentors can provide leaders, rather than focusing mentorship on more traditional areas such as career planning.

Why reverse mentoring?

Keeping up to date with ever-changing lifestyles, preferences and needs of consumers and talent segments is key to our sustainable growth in the region.

We recognise that younger staff can be used to help us stay ahead of the consumer curve. They come in with fresh eyes, open minds and instant links to the future of technology and rapid changes in generational trends. Furthermore, with the rise of digital and e-commerce in the region, we have to become increasingly fast-paced and diverse in reaching out to consumers.

Senior leaders are reminded their role is to listen and learn and they should resist the urge to impart their wisdom, while the reverse mentors are encouraged to talk about the issues that matter to them.

Our younger staff comprise of Millennials, who are the perfect demographic to consult on how to sell a product in the digital age. The mentoring conversations are critical moments for creative idea-generation within Kimberly-Clark, with the potential to influence key business decisions and facilitate strategy focused mentoring dialogues to help leaders extract latent workforce intelligence. At the same time, the mentees also benefit from the guidance and leadership on business and industry best-practices from senior leaders.

The challenges of reverse mentoring

In the Asia Pacific region, where most of the market comprises strong hierarchical cultures in the workplace, top-down teaching and mentoring is commonplace, and not all senior management may take to the idea of having a younger employee as their “mentor”.

The programme was first launched in China, where more than 65% of the workforce is Generation Y, so understanding their motivation as employees as well as consumers is essential. To enable a successful relationship, senior leaders and young talent were invited to volunteer to join the programme, as volunteers would be more receptive to the benefits.

Senior leaders are reminded their role is to listen and learn and they should resist the urge to impart their wisdom, while the reverse mentors are encouraged to talk about the issues that matter to them. Meetings tend to take place in informal settings such as the coffee shop or over lunch to help break down the barriers to free discussion.

What are the outcomes of reverse mentoring?

At Kimberly-Clark, we believe in empowerment of the individual and acceptance of the best ideas, wherever they come from. Whether it be empowerment of our senior employees through cross-border stretch assignments, or empowerment of our younger employees through reverse mentoring and giving them a stake in the business, we are committed to ensuring that each individual feels they are part of a winning culture.

This contributes to retaining talent and the overall productivity of the organisation. In the case of reverse mentoring, the programme has helped us to drive both enterprise and talent outcomes in the company as well as manage generational diversity.

For our business as a whole, we are pleased with how the programme has resulted in increased knowledge and changed behaviours, with most of our business leaders admitting to have done something different as a result.

We believe this is a step in the right direction that has helped promote creative idea generation with the potential to influence key business decisions – which is crucial to success in the fast-changing consumer marketplace.

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