A growing number of accountancy firms are turning mentoring on its head by having younger members of staff coach senior ones.
Under reverse-mentoring schemes, junior employees are paired with senior managers and executives to teach them about topics in which they have an edge, such as new technology and diversity.
While many schemes in are still in their infancy, firms are already seeing the benefits, which range from successful digital transformation to having a more engaged and empowered workforce.
Norman Sze FCCA, northern region managing partner at Deloitte China, introduced a pilot reverse-mentoring scheme after being struck by the very different outlook between his own generation and Millennials.
‘We place a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion at Deloitte, and I wanted our younger colleagues to feel listened to,’ he says.
‘It has allowed senior management to benefit not only from learning about the latest technology in the market but also from honest feedback for improvement’
At the same time, as Deloitte developed more digital assets, Sze observed that much of the work was being done by younger employees.
‘I needed to learn from them so I could understand what we had developed when I presented it to clients,’ says Sze, who, along with the CEO and chairman, has been paired with a young person. This, he says, reinforces commitment at the top.
So far, the initiative has not only covered technology and Millennials’ attitudes to work, but also the design of a new office, leading to the inclusion of breakout areas.
Hong Kong firm ShineWing introduced an informal reverse-mentoring scheme in 2016, when risk advisory partner Gloria So, and manager Kevin Yip – then a junior –were working together in the firm’s advisory team.
So was keen to consult Yip about how social media could be harnessed to attract clients, as it was not something she used in either her professional or private life.
‘A lot of things are changing and we need to pick up new skills and update ourselves in different areas as senior managers,’ she says.
So adds that another benefit of reverse mentoring is that it can change the top-down management style that many accountancy firms have, which in turn helps to build loyalty among the younger generation.
‘Mindsets are evolving. You need young people to help transform your organisation.’
Yip also believes that ShineWing’s scheme has influenced his own management style as he tries to give his juniors plenty of opportunities to express their ideas.
‘Gloria really embraced my ideas and suggestions. It made me feel trusted and increased my sense of belonging to the firm. I was also more proactive about making suggestions,’ he says.
Reverse mentoring is nothing new at Baker Tilly Malaysia, with the firm promoting this culture from the beginning.
Dato’ Lock Peng Kuan FCCA, managing partner, audit and assurance, says: ‘It has allowed senior management to benefit not only from learning about the latest technology in the market but also from honest feedback for improvement.’
He adds that the culture has been invaluable as Baker Tilly has invested in technology and automation, as well as adapting to remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘It has allowed us to create a work environment that is ready to give new ideas a chance,’ he adds.
Making it happen
When introducing reverse mentoring, Norman Sze FCCA, northern region managing partner at Deloitte China, suggests starting with very senior executives, such as the CEO and chairman, to show commitment and ensure visibility.
Narissa Chen, an audit and assurance partner at Mazars in Singapore, believes it is good to focus initially on just one area.
‘I think having specific topics where reverse mentoring can be better applied can help senior management see the value of such a programme, creating a win-win situation where both parties can benefit from each other’s different perspectives,’ she says.
Dato’ Lock Peng Kuan FCCA, managing partner, audit and assurance, at Baker Tilly Malaysia, suggests that it is also important to educate everyone on what reverse mentoring is and how both individuals and organisations can gain. For firms that get it right, Lock says the benefits can be significant.
‘The reverse-mentoring culture that we have at Baker Tilly has been the key to the growth that we have experienced in the last 20 years,’ he says. ‘Through this, we have improved our communication channels and moved with the times.’
Gloria So, a risk advisory partner at ShineWing, points out that senior management must be open-minded and willing to listen to younger employees.
ShineWing manager Kevin Yip agrees. ‘You need a culture of embracing new ideas and opinions. We need fresh ideas to drive our future success.’
Narissa Chen, an audit and assurance partner at Mazars in Singapore, acted as a mentor for a senior partner in China when the firm introduced reverse mentoring last year, reflecting the firm’s desire to create a scheme that not only crossed generations but also offices and borders.
While still at an early stage, their conversations so far have focused on diversity, particularly around gender.
‘Without the programme, it would have been difficult to have such conversations, as we are all busy with our schedules,’ Chen says.
Sze believes that one of the main benefits of reverse-mentoring schemes is in helping companies update themselves.
‘Mindsets are evolving,’ he says. ‘You need young people to help transform your organisation.’