Leadership Blog #6: The Journey of Reverse Mentorship

It’s never too late to start learning from someone younger than you with a different perspective.

It is inspiring to hear that even a leader who is as experienced and accomplished as Jean-Philippe Courtois, the EVP & President of Microsoft Global Sales, Marketing & Operations, is making an effort to learn from those who are much less experienced and just coming out of university.

In a world where bureaucracy tends to supersede potential, people usually find that they are proving themselves through their tenure more-so than results and merit. This reality paves a natural path where those who are more senior in experience would mentor those who are less experienced and eager to learn. Yet, we are starting to see many aspects of business evolve and traditional models disrupted.

Today, I am exploring the concept of Reverse Mentorship because it takes the concept of Traditional Mentorship and flips it on its head. The goal is to inspire you — leaders and managers — to think about learning from those who you wouldn’t usually look to for advice and perspective. As you’ll find from Jean-Philippe’s experiences below, you may be surprised at what you can learn.

Thoughts on Traditional Mentorship

Throughout his upbringing in the south of France in Nice, Jean-Philippe’s father was a guiding light and one of his first mentors who instilled values of courage, integrity, and family. At the start of Jean-Philippe’s career after business school, the term “mentorship” was not formally used like it is today. However, the eagerness to learn from people who did great work and accomplished a lot was always there.

Joining Microsoft in the early start-up days when there were less than 1,000 employees around the world, Jean-Philippe recalls how blessed he was to work with incredible leaders, from Country Managers to all 3 CEOs of Microsoft (Bill Gates, Steve Balmer, and Satya Nadella). His most significant lessons learned were:

  • How to listen more and deeper with customers
  • The importance of smiling everyday with optimism and confidence
  • Always being curious about how you can do more and develop new skills
  • Self awareness is one of the most critical skills you can develop
  • Show your passion for what you do because it’s contagious

Planting the Seed of Reverse Mentorship

Decades ago, as the CEO of the Europe, Middle East, and Africa region of Microsoft, Jean-Philippe was a strong believer in the new generation and an active sponsor of the newly started MACH graduate community (now known as Microsoft Aspire). He wanted to learn from this new generation of people who were not as concerned about corporate politics and were willing to speak their minds more freely. As he started travelling the world for business, Jean-Philippe connected with many Aspires and was refreshed by their different perspectives and the problems (e.g. policies, fixed mindset, etc…) that they saw in the workplace as new employees of Microsoft. These reverse mentorship experiences led to some important leadership revelations:

  • Be very sensitive to the environment that you create for your people
  • Find ways to keep yourself honest by having unplugged sensors into situations that you may not be aware of
  • Keep reflecting on how you communicate with others and how you are doing as a leader (and be open to the constructive feedback)

The Journey Never Stops

A recent example includes Jean-Philippe’s reverse mentorship with Roxy, an African American employee at Microsoft, to learn more about diversity and discrimination. Jean-Philippe had the opportunity of inviting Roxy to shadow him for an entire day in Chicago, and then they talked about her observations and how she saw, lived, and felt about the day. Through these connections, Jean-Philippe received great feedback that challenged him to gain him more context about racial discrimination in the USA.

For over 5 years, Jean-Philippe has also learned a lot from engaging with youth outside of Microsoft through his family foundation, Live For Good, which strives to empower youth from all walks of life to become social entrepreneurs. Through coaching and discussion sessions with these youth, Jean-Philippe always enjoyed the learning moments about what they see in the world, how they react to world issues, and how they perceive Microsoft as a corporate citizen. By capturing these moments of truth through the eyes of young entrepreneurs, Jean-Philippe has learned about:

  • How hard it is to open the door to new opportunities when you come from underprivileged backgrounds
  • The challenges of lacking social connections and developing personal and professional networks
  • The need to work a lot harder to get things done

Starting Your Own Journey

As Jean-Philippe mentions in his closing words, it is never too late to start learning from someone younger than you with a different perspective. Never believe that you’re passed that age because you can participate in reverse mentorship at any point in your life. As you start challenging yourself as a leader and engaging in reverse mentorship, remember the following:

  • Growth Mindset: Start with an open mind and free it up from any preconceptions or misconceptions about what you should talk about. Capture as much as you can and be ready to learn something new.
  • Don’t Rush: Be curious for long enough so that the people who are reverse mentoring you can have an open and honest conversation with you. To grab the essence of the conversation, you need to get enough substance and feedback to understand what they actually mean.
  • Let It Go: Just because you’re the most experienced does not mean you need to play the “advisor” role. Create a space for free flowing conversation and give the other side a chance to ask any insightful questions of yourself. Push yourself to grow your own perspectives.

The most important takeaway is to take what you’ve learned and apply it to your leadership style. Reflect on the feedback and impressions that you’ve received, determine what these mean to you, and decide what changes you need to make in your mindset and behaviours. Ultimately, the reverse mentorship journey allows you to learn more about the world and to learn more about yourself.

Thank you so much, Jean-Philippe, for taking the time to meet with me and sharing your journey and perspective on Reverse Mentorship. I have learned so much through our conversation, and I hope to follow your words of advice as I progress in my own career and hopefully become an engaged and empathetic leader one day.