The value of reverse mentoring in the life sciences industry

Finding a mentor who can guide your career is a goal for many young professionals. But reverse mentoring, where the younger, less experienced employee becomes the mentor, can be even more beneficial, as both parties benefit. This is especially true in technology-driven fields such as the life sciences industry.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, popularized the concept of reverse mentoring in 1999, seconds a Forbes. As the Internet was becoming popular, he wanted younger employees to help senior executives learn to navigate the new technology.

At the time, Welch could not have known how much this early technology would evolve over the next two decades. But the role technology plays in every aspect of a professional’s life today makes the concept of reverse mentoring more applicable now than ever.

Pharmaceutical giants and startups alike have implemented their own versions of these programs, hoping to help their employees help themselves.

Takeda is one such company. Charlotte Owens, MD, vice president and head of Takeda’s Center for Health Equity and Patient Affairs, said BioSpace he sees reverse mentoring as a way to further diversify and leverage the talent the company already has. Charlotte Owens_Takeda

“At Takeda, our Center for Health Equity and Patient Affairs partners internally and externally to identify and eliminate health disparities, and that also applies to mentoring and internships,” Owens said. “We recognize the need for diverse talent and see reverse mentoring as another opportunity to tap into that.”

Owens is also an adjunct assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morehouse College of Medicine, where he trains and educates medical students and residents. He emphasized the importance of mentoring in a young employee’s career.

A “nothing is impossible” mentality.

“Mentoring allows you to borrow someone else’s dream until you can clearly identify and get your own,” Owens said. “It provides a space to create, gather advice and have candid conversations, which are important components of advancing your career and building professional resilience.”

He also emphasized the value of reverse mentoring for more experienced team members. It’s no surprise that younger employees can help their apprentices become more efficient through technology, but Owens said there’s something younger employees tend to have even more valuable: a positive outlook.

“Younger employees tend to have a ‘nothing is impossible’ mentality, without the same fear or limitations that we get over time.”

Alteration of the typical hierarchy

Still, there are challenges to successfully running reverse mentoring programs, especially when they are first introduced. The most obvious challenge is the inevitable tension that comes from the disruption of the typical status quo or hierarchy. While it can be difficult for anyone to accept constructive criticism, this is exacerbated when there is an unusual power dynamic at play.

Another potential challenge in these programs is the lack of shared interests, especially in an organization that does not prioritize diversity. Owens noted that typically, younger learners will emulate their mentors, and it’s much easier for them to do so when that mentor has a similar background or shared experiences. But when this is not possible, one or both parties may feel frustrated or discouraged and miss out on what they could have learned.

“Studies show that we tend to choose career paths based on where we can see ourselves and people like us…it’s important that we create a pathway for more diverse talent within these programs and allow younger generations to see someone like them succeeding in a field they otherwise might not have thought to enter,” Owens said.

Cultivate a safe space for honest growth

The ultimate goal of both traditional mentoring and reverse mentoring is growth. And to achieve any kind of growth, there is a level of open-mindedness and willingness to change that must come first.

Fortunately, there is a way to help employees achieve this growth: by creating an environment in which they feel safe. According to Owens, the first step is to cultivate a space where employees can feel comfortable being honest without fear of retaliation or resentment.

After that, it’s even more important for senior and junior employees to accept feedback without judgment and learn from it, Owens said.

“Sometimes getting honest feedback can be difficult, but it’s what it takes to better understand people, your team, and even yourself,” Owens said.

And when a reverse mentoring program is successful, it can have a ripple effect, affecting every aspect of the business.

“It is this type of effort [in creating a safe environment] entire mentoring program that fosters better productivity, motivation and increased contributions for employees who are valued throughout the organization,” concluded Owens.

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