Generational gaps are nothing new in business. They have become an accepted part of the work environment. But should they be accepted? Or is there potential in the range of views and experiences of your employees to foster new innovation and collaboration? More leaders are seeing the potential their young employees have for bringing new ideas and fresh perspectives to the table. Not only that, but the new Gen Y and Millennial worker have a technological competency that can only come from being raised in front of the computer. These “digital natives” have grown up interacting online. They naturally share and collaborate, they promote and comment, they are in constant communication with each other. Executives are quickly learning the value that these qualities could bring to their teams. This has lead to the creation of reverse mentoring programs.
GE was that first organization to implement reverse mentoring in 1999 when CEO Jack Welch saw the need for his executives to understand the Internet. He paired 600 upper management employees with internet-savvy entry level employees to train them. Proctor & Gamble CIO, Steve David, began a reverse mentoring relationship with a staff scientist to understand how science could affect business decisions. Deloitte & Touche used reverse mentoring to help their senior advisors learn how to use email. The result was a valuable business relationship. The training was simply a catalyst for more significant discussions. Booz Allen implemented a reverse mentoring program last year to help “screw in the social media light bulb” before “flipping the switch” to understanding its business uses. Caroline Watteeuw, the global chief technology officer of PepsiCo, remarked: “It is essential for our leaders to understand, accept and work with the Millennial generation. They are not only our employees and customers, but also our future leaders. What we are building today is a bridge for us to come to their way of work, just as much as for them to come to us.”
The benefits of these programs go beyond teaching technology.
Field Trends: Younger associates, right out of college, have spent years studying the most advanced developments in their fields and can help other associates stay current with trends.
Diversity: Younger employees are known for their open-mindedness in the office while working with a diverse group, a trait that can enhance the views of all employees.
Reignite Passion: More seasoned employees, who, after years of work, may be losing their drive, can benefit from the contagious nature of young, driven employees that are anxious to learn and get involved.
Fresh ideas: Associates that are new to a field bring with them outside-the-box thinking, not yet conformed to industry standards. This can bring a new level of thinking to any group.
Retention: It’s well known that Gen Y and Millennial employees are fickle in their company loyalty and demand high responsibility and high praise. This gives them the platform to form relationships with high-level executives and to feel that their knowledge is influencing business decisions.
Reverse mentoring is meant to be an extension of tradition mentor-mentee relationships. It becomes a two-way road with an equal exchange of knowledge. If implemented well, participants will understand that stereotypes and age biases are set aside so that both parties can benefit from what the other is teaching. It is a platform for the senior employees to pass on their knowledge from experience in the field as well as understand how the arena is changing from those on the front line, the young employees that are not jaded by long-standing industry standards. “Executives are beginning to realize that knowledge isn’t a one-way street. It’s in everyone’s best interest to share expertise,” says Jerry Wind, director of the Wharton Fellows Program.
Reverse mentoring programs can break barriers that for years have prevented true innovation in the development of our future leaders. In 2008 Diana El-Azar, Associate Director of Media & Entertainment Industries at the World Economic Forum, began a reverse mentoring program for women in the media industry. She hoped to initiate profound change in the way “the game is played” to get ahead in the media industry, which only has roughly 6% of women in executive positions.
“It was evident that blatant discrimination was not so common anymore- at least in the Western world. That battle was fought by the previous generation of women. They had learned how to prove themselves and show their male colleagues that they could play their game and even win. But that was the point: it was their game… it was so much harder to win at that game. Slowly I recognized that I – and most women- were at a slight disadvantage…because their game was to run a fast race and win , and we women were being trained to run faster, and sometimes even given a head start so that we could compete fairly…What if we changed the game from “sprinting” to “marathon running” or even, gosh do I dare say, to “synchronized swimming”? How would we all perform in the organization? How would men react? Did they even realize that women are being forced, and often encouraged to hone their skills, to play the same game whose rules were laid down by men?
Pairing a junior woman executive with the CEO of the company to “tell it as it is” and have that CEO understand the “female” point of view seemed like a decently good idea. It also gave the women mentors visibility in their own companies. And true to my nature, it was practical, executable with “real” impact, rather than it being an ambitious research document that my sceptical self always believed remained unread.” – Diana El-Azar
Reverse mentoring is leading the way in innovative collaborations across organizations. Understanding the knowledge that all employees have and utilizing their diverse experiences is one key to a forward-thinking, successful team and strong leadership development for the future of your organization.