As technology transforms how businesses work, keeping up with the dizzying pace of change can be overwhelming.
Investing in training and development isn’t likely to help, since tech tools often evolve faster than teaching materials can be updated, and busy senior managers and executives don’t have time to figure it all out on their own. Fortunately, there is a simple, low-cost way to bridge the learning gap: by tapping into the skills of your own Millennial staff—a group that grew up surrounded by tech advances in a world where the only constant was change.
Video: Tips for Reverse Mentoring
The idea of reverse mentoring is not new, but it’s a strategy that is particularly relevant in the digital age. Executives are paired up with younger employees who help them understand and leverage new trends in social media, mobile technology or today’s consumer preferences.
“Typically when you think of mentoring, you think of this silver-haired employee … mentoring the fresh-faced college grad,” says Debra Arbit, CEO of BridgeWorks LLC, a Minneapolis-based firm that works on addressing workplace generation gaps. Reverse mentoring turns that model on its head: With the absolute lightning-fast advent of technology and social media, the younger generation is often in a position to guide more-senior staffers.
Reverse mentoring also serves the secondary purpose of prepping young workers to become next-generation leaders. As Baby Boomers exit the workforce in droves—about 10,000 people born between 1946 and 1964 turn 65 every day—there aren’t nearly enough members of Generation X to fill those roles. That leaves Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997), currently the largest generation in the workforce, to take over the positions.
These young men and women will need to step into bigger jobs earlier than previous cohorts, says Karie Willyerd, head of global customer education at SAP, a software and technology solutions company in Fort Collins, Colo. “We have to accelerate their development,” Willyerd says. Exposing them to executives through mentoring is a good way to do that.
In addition, since many Boomers are choosing to stay on the job longer than those in previous generations, keeping them productive and their skills current is critical for their success. Many employers are enlisting Millennials in that effort because of their strong desire to be heard and to contribute more meaningfully in their jobs.
Arbit says digital natives like her are eager to share their expertise. “A lot of workplaces don’t tap into that younger generation. It’s a really fast way to disengage Millennials,” she says. “They believe they come with some knowledge and are ready to share it.”
Keys to Success
Reverse mentoring programs have various structures, though many have in common a one-on-one relationship in which a junior staffer teaches an executive. Usually the arrangements involve monthly meetings for six months to a year.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all reverse mentoring program,” Arbit says. “The key is, it has to feel authentic to your culture.”
Some companies combine reverse mentoring with diversity efforts by matching younger employees from different backgrounds with senior executives who can help them advance in their careers.
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HR professionals can also foster informal arrangements by promoting examples and sharing success stories, Arbit says. Even one-time meetings can have value and create an environment where members of different generations can reach out to help each other succeed, she says.
Marketing company OgilvyOne Worldwide in New York City, for instance, leverages its informal system to connect executives with promising young talent in the organization’s Young Professional Network, which comprises about 450 people under age 35 out of a workforce of 5,800 employees.
New York City-based AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., on the other hand, uses structured one-on-one sessions that encourage business partners to nominate high-potential staff to participate, says Richard Migdalski, SHRM-CP, senior director, HR business partners. Fifty mentors are chosen and paired with executives, starting with top leaders. (AXA has 3,900 U.S. employees, not including financial professionals.)If he knows the individuals involved, Migdalski tries to take personality into consideration when making matches. Other ways of creating mentoring pairs include deploying software systems designed for the task or conducting speed-dating-style events for mentors and mentees to get to know each other.
Experts advise leaving room for individuals to choose who they want to mentor. Successful relationships are built on pairing individuals who like each other, Willyerd says.
As for program design, companies should build programs based on what leaders will learn that will help the company, says Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a University of Minnesota lecturer in organizational policy and leadership development who has been studying reverse mentoring since 2012.
Migdalski agrees, noting that “If you can connect the dots of how this is going to affect your bottom line, rolling out the program is going to be so much easier.”
Training is an important element. AXA starts by training mentors and providing content for them to use (though they are urged to tailor it to the interests of the executive they are mentoring). With the company’s effort now in its second round, past mentors have met with 15 or so current mentors during the year to share best practices.
HR can help set the program up for success by reminding executives about the advantages of lifelong learning and encouraging leaders to listen instead of talk, Chaudhuri says. Programs also tend to be more successful when they are fun, flexible and not overly time-consuming, Arbit notes.
While many initiatives are focused on technology, others target areas in which Millennial workers may have key insights. UnitedHealthcare Inc., a managed health care company based in Minnetonka, Minn., for example, stresses educating executives about the preferences of the Millennial workforce and how the needs of health care consumers are changing.
Two big challenges: convincing executives that it’s worth their time to be mentored and getting them to put their egos aside.
Here, again, HR can help. Coach executives to understand that they are investing time and advice in the careers of promising staff, and encourage them to publicize mentoring success stories in newsletters, online forums and in-person meetings.
“If you go into it thinking you know all the answers, it’s not going to be as valuable,” says mentee Dan Ohman, CEO, central region, for United Healthcare, which has 250,000 employees. “It’s a little bit of a different experience to have someone else take the lead and drive the conversation. But if you’re open to it, it’s a great experience.”
That buy-in is critical, especially when the business is asking junior-level employees to put themselves in front of leaders.
“There’s such a disparity in our levels, I’d be beyond uncomfortable if I could tell he didn’t want to be there,” says Ohman’s mentor, Samantha Sojkowski.
While little research has been done on how reverse mentoring affects business goals, such programs have been shown to connect participants to the organization and to improve job satisfaction and engagement, experts say.
Willyerd surveys participants before and after their stints about whether they would likely leave the company if offered a job elsewhere. Some companies also measure retention rates among participants and the promotion rate of mentors.
UnitedHealthcare surveys participants and gathers feedback during the program, which helps the company’s HR leaders tweak the monthly sessions on the fly, says Pete Church, vice president of human capital.
Some executives who have been mentored don’t worry much about the metrics because they know personally how valuable the exchange is.
“The world is forever changing,” says mentee Dave Hattem, AXA’s senior executive director and general counsel. “The important concept of this is, we can learn from each other.”
Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.
Jérémie Berthon and Dave Hattem
AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co., New York City
During an interview with HR Magazine, AXA senior executive director and general counsel Dave Hattem repeatedly turns the conversation over to his mentor Jérémie Berthon, who was 5 years old when Hattem started working for AXA 23 years ago. The global insurance company has a structured reverse mentoring program in the U.S. that lasts for several months. Even though the formal pairing between Hattem and Berthon has ended, their collegial relationship continues.
For the reverse mentoring program, Berthon prepared an agenda for Hattem that covered how to use software applications, social media and other technology.
Since Berthon, the company’s senior manager of multimedia communications, is French, the two talked about tools that French businesses use, and Berthon took the initiative to tailor the sessions to Hattem’s personal interests. For example, he introduced him to an app about art galleries.
“It’s a great opportunity to improve my personal skills,” Hattem says.
As the relationship developed, Hattem also got feedback about how executives relate to staff and how new initiatives were resonating with employees.
“It was terrific to meet with someone from a different part of the organization, [at] a different stage of his career,” Hattem says.
Berthon gets plenty out of the relationship as well, such as Hattem’s perspective on the business, institutional knowledge and exposure to senior leadership.
“Usually at this stage of my career, I don’t have this visibility,” says Berthon, who has been with the company for three years.
The program is particularly relevant now as technology is revolutionizing how the company interacts with customers and how colleagues interact with each other, Berthon says.
“Jérémie can help keep me fresh on some of these issues,” Hattem says, “and we can continue having conversations about what the organization is doing and how we can do it better.”
Daniel Jeydel and Brian Fetherstonhaugh
OgilvyOne Worldwide, New York City
Brian Fetherstonhaugh, CEO of marketing company OgilvyOne Worldwide, doesn’t normally attend dance parties at sunrise. But the silver-haired executive once got on board a party boat with several young employees, including his 27-year-old mentor, Daniel Jeydel, associate director of strategy and innovation and head of Ogilvy’s Young Professional Network (YPN), a group for promising Millennial employees.
Fetherstonhaugh’s interest in learning more about the company’s customers and talent pool prompted him to start meeting regularly with Jeydel. And Jeydel thought a good introduction to these topics would be a dance party sponsored by a group called Daybreaker, which hosts gatherings for Millennials around the country where guests start the day off with “high-intensity” dancing and healthy food like kale smoothies and cricket protein bars.
Rocking the Boat
“So many of our clients are trying to figure out how to win Millennials as customers or win and keep them as employees,” Fetherstonhaugh says.
After his early morning outing, he got the idea to connect Ogilvy client IBM with Daybreaker to hold an event “hosted” by IBM’s Watson computer.
“It takes a unique global CEO to be in the car at 4:40 a.m. to go meet a bunch of staff members all wearing tank tops and get on a boat on a 90-degree day,” Jeydel says.
Jeydel likens having the ear of the CEO and working on projects with him to being given the keys to his parents’ car.
Fetherstonhaugh has tapped Millennials in the company to help him on several projects and with the research and design of his book The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High and Go Far (Diversion Books, 2016).
Ogilvy’s reverse mentoring initiative is largely organic, with Fetherstonhaugh inviting members of the YPN to events and promoting the effort among fellow executives.
“With the world moving with such speed and uncertainty, older people are highly vulnerable” to being replaced, Fetherstonhaugh says. “A critical way of inoculating yourself is by waking yourself every day and saying, ‘What do I do today to stay fresh and relevant?’ ”
Sometimes the answer is kale smoothies at dawn.
Samantha Sojkowski and Dan Ohman
UnitedHealthcare Inc., Minnetonka, Minn.
When Dan Ohman, CEO, central region, for UnitedHealthcare, a managed health care company, thought about quality of care, it was all about patient outcomes.
But during monthly sessions with his Millennial mentor, Samantha Sojkowski, he learned that her generation is just as concerned about the speed of access to care and customer service.
Now, when his fellow executives start talking about quality, Ohman chimes in with a new perspective.
Pete Church, vice president of human capital for UnitedHealthcare, says Ohman’s expanded knowledge is one example of the benefits of reverse mentoring.
Building a Brush Fire
“This program has exceeded all expectations of success. It has been a breakthrough in our organization,” Church says. “I had no expectation it would grow like the brush fire that it has turned out to be.”
Engaged and Inclusive
One of UnitedHealthcare’s goals is to promote the careers of women and minorities by giving them exposure to C-suite executives. Sojkowski says the program gives her access to an executive experience and a perspective she wouldn’t normally have.
Being a mentor has also taught her that, even though she is younger than everyone on her team, she can still speak up and offer the insights of a different generation.
“Having your voice heard makes you want to have that experience again,” she says. “It has shown me I have interesting, important things to say.”
Since Sojkowski, a strategic account executive, is based in Milwaukee and Ohman is in Atlanta, they conduct their hour-long sessions by phone and plan to meet in person for the first time this spring.
“It’s interesting to me being the mentee to be able to listen and learn how people think differently,” Ohman says. “It’s a really good reminder of how important it is to create purposeful opportunities to think and learn.”
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