My 12-year-old son has taught me that his generation participates in social networking entirely on their phones. He showed me how to post a photo on Instagram, follow others, tag people and spark conversations on the small screen in my hand. Over the last few years, I have become smart enough to realize that the younger generation is way ahead in adapting to the newest ways of communicating and connecting and that there’s no shame in asking them to teach me how to keep up.
Many in my generation do fabulous in their career paths and soar to the top of businesses or organizations. Then they hit a wall — keeping up with technology and a new mindset.
The wave of 20-somethings heading into the working world know how to amass Twitter followers. They know how to text-message with their eyes closed. And they know how to digitally connect with influencers who can send business their way. Now, older workers must look to them to teach us how to be innovative.
In a trend called reverse mentoring, companies are pairing grizzled veterans with young up-and-comers. The arrangement works to retain eager millennials and keep older executives technologically and socially relevant. It’s going on at big companies including Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and Mars Inc., where formal programs are in place. It also has taken off at small companies, where informal reverse mentor relationships are born from mutual respect and candor.
Reverse mentoring is gaining traction for all the right reasons, says Terri Scandura, a professor of management at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Even baby boomers who might bristle at the idea of being mentored realize the value in learning what motivates Gen Y and how to market to them, she says.
Last week, Citibank became one of those one of those businesses to tap into the digital wisdom of the younger generation. It launched a program that will pair 15 senior executives from the bank’s Latin America regional office with 15 graduate and undergraduate University of Miami business students. The duos will meet at least once a week for six months to work on specific projects that will take a fresh look at mobile payments, communicating with millennial generation customers, social media, the digital retail business and creating compelling job pitches for young talent.
“Our senior executives need to clearly understand trends and what motivates the new set of young professionals,” says Jorge Ruiz, who is based in Miami and is the head of digital banking for Citibank’s Latin America office. “They are not just our future clients but also our next leaders.”
Citibank is keeping tabs on how this program goes, Ruiz says, with the hope of expanding to other regions in the near future. It is one of the first companies to reach out to a university for reverse mentors.
For Citibank, going outside the organization was appealing to the senior executives with regional responsibilities in Latin America. The biggest obstacle to reverse mentoring is pride. Ruiz said using students as mentors instead of young workers brings in a fresher perspective and a different relationship than being mentored by someone a senior executive might manage.
Magali Ferber, 20, is among the University of Miami students who are participating. Originally from Uruguay, she attended a French high school and thinks she has a lot to share about the global daily tech routines of Generation Y who buy iTunes songs at warp speed. “We are going to work together to figure out how they can adjust the way they work and products they offer to serve my generation’s needs,” Ferber says of her pairing. Already she sees opportunity for a personal return, too — confidence and experience from relating to a senior manager. “I think it will empower me to express my ideas.”
For young workers, reverse mentoring is not only an opportunity to network at high levels, it can help managers understand the way their young colleagues might prefer to work — their desire to work unconventional hours or check in from home or Starbucks. “If a senior manager can connect and understand that a younger worker is creative but works differently, it’s a positive,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, associate director of marketing for the Boston College Center for Work & Family . “Maybe a young worker doesn’t like to answer phone calls because he sees another more effective means of communication.”
To be successful, reverse mentoring needs buy-in from top-level brass.
At The Hartford, CEO Liam McGee jumped on board when he saw a need for the company’s management “to become more fluent in social media, mobile computing, the cloud and other digital technologies our customers and partners are using.” He launched a program with 50 mentees across seven states paired with millennial mentors at the company. The payoff was significant: a new program for telemarketing via social media and mobile phones instead of traditional land-line phones, an update to the social media usage policy and a rising comfort with electronic sharing capabilities and collaboration that resulted in two patents written and filed. The younger workers benefited, too. Of the 12 original mentors, 11 were promoted within a year. A report on the program says that the value of reverse mentoring is “the affirmation in all sectors of a company and across generations that the next big idea can come from anywhere.”
Even small business owners are finding value in turning to the new generation of workers for guidance for everything from useful smartphone apps to improving a brand’s online presence. Older workers could scout professional groups or chambers of commerce for young mentors. Or small businesses could consider joining with others to create a formal program.
Adrian Cristiani, 46, managing director of retail banking for Citi Latin America, says that whether you work for a small or large company, it helps in overcoming resistance to be mentored as a team. He has been paired with Ferber at UM but his entirely Latin America management team is participating in the reverse mentoring program. Personally, Cristiani wants to understand why millennials make certain buying decisions and why they use certain tech tools and not others. “I think we can design around that as opposed to develop tools, push them through door and see who is going to take them.”
Reluctant managers are finding it can be a badge of honor to have a junior mentor as the trend takes off at a range of companies. Cristiani says he feels fortunate: “I don’t think of anyone that would not benefit from it, if you are willing to leverage what you learn and react.”