As CIO of General Electric's Digital Energy division, Venki Rao has invested a fair amount of time identifying and developing IT talent. But four years ago, during a boot camp kicking off GE's companywide IT Leadership Program (ITLP) for college recruits, Rao quickly realized the learning opportunity had become a two-way street.
While GE's seasoned IT staff was able to school the freshman crew regarding GE's business operations and management best practices, incoming millennials had a far better grasp of how to leverage new technologies like mobile apps and social media, knowledge that was lacking among senior staffers, Rao recalls.
Millennials also had different perspective on the work environment, a distinction that Rao thought was crucial for Gen X and baby boomer IT execs to grasp if they were going to effectively manage and collaborate with the next generation.
Rao decided to strike up an informal arrangement with an intern he met at ILTP to get himself up to speed on Facebook and Twitter. Soon after, he launched a formal reverse mentoring program to give his 18 direct IT reports the same kind of training.
"GE is a 130-year-old company, and for most of [the leadership], technology is not a core competency -- they use about 5% of the technology offered," says Rao, who includes his own senior IT employees in that assessment. "It made sense to dig into the pool of ITLP talent to give mentoring."
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch, widely credited as the first champion of reverse mentoring, rolled out a program in late '90s that leveraged younger employees' knowledge of the Internet to coach GE's top management (see video).
While the practice isn't as widespread as traditional mentoring, large companies like Cisco Systems, Proctor Gamble, The Hartford and others have since formalized efforts to use millennials' easy familiarity with digital technologies, especially social media, to teach older employees how to tap into the new capabilities for strategic business advantage. (For details, see How to set up a reverse mentoring program.)
As an added bonus, the reverse mentoring initiatives provide managers with insight into millennials' aspirations, allowing companies to foster a culture designed to keep them motivated and engaged as they become the dominant force in the workplace, replacing retiring baby boomers.
"In a few years, half the workforce will be millennials, and executives are going to have to know what makes them tick and how to motivate them," says Lance Perry, vice president, IT customer strategy and success at Cisco Systems. "Unless [executives] have mentors and mentees from that generation, they are going to guess and they're going to fail."
Hierarchy, what hierarchy?
Like Rao, Perry, 55, became convinced IT management had a lot to learn from millennials after hearing one of his college interns talk about getting time with Cisco's executive vice president of sales to discuss an idea simply by calling him directly to ask for a meeting.
"Here's this college kid calling Cisco's head of sales by his first name and getting 30 minutes on his calendar -- my direct staff was mortified," Perry recalls. "Millennials understand how to communicate across boundaries. There isn't this sense of hierarchy that [Gen Xers or baby boomers] get caught up in. They have skill sets and attributes I could benefit from."
Cisco has experimented with reverse mentoring in a variety of programs, but it's the Social Media Reverse Mentoring initiative, started by Cisco's learning group, that has gotten the most play. Perry and three senior IT leaders from his group have gone through the program, and a total of 43 Cisco senior leaders have participated overall.
Over the last few years, Perry has met monthly with a group of 15 to 20 millennial mentors to cover topics like how to use Twitter, the dos and don'ts of blogging, and more recently, the benefits of video blogging. While Perry is immersed in technology all day, he says he's so busy driving strategy that he often doesn't have time to get his hands dirty and explore new capabilities -- a limitation that creates anxiety among many of his IT peers as well.
"So many execs don't want to admit how much they don't know," he says. "This [millennial] generation was born with computers in their hands -- it's ingrained in the way they listen to music, get a trip scheduled, or get coffee or meals. They have taught me that the things that scared me are actually easier to do once you get over your fear."
Take video blogging, for example. Now that Perry is comfortable with both the video hardware and software, and with being on camera, he regularly sends video messages in lieu of emails to his team of 12 direct reports and 300 employees worldwide. "Now I do these 30-second video messages to recognize employees, and that simple shift from email to video totally changed how it was received," he says. "With a quick video message, you can see what someone's expression is and you can tell if they are passionate. It gives people something more in a message than the old way of doing things."
Working with his millennial mentors has also given Perry a deeper understanding of what millennials like and don't like in a work environment, which is very different from his priorities when he was first starting out. "These guys come in and ask about flexibility, what the company gives back, what Cisco's position is in the community," he says. "I never asked those questions when I was interviewing for a job. For me, it was about money. For them, it's more about the experience than the ladder they're climbing."
It's the same story for GE's Rao, who said the firm's reverse mentoring program has taught him as much about how to effectively manage millennials as it has about using social media or learning how to fully leverage his iPad. "Not only did I get up to speed on technology, but on some of millennials' behavior patterns as well," he says. "I've learned that millennials don't want to work 8 to 5, but want flexibility, and that they're not tied to a desktop or a company. [Mentoring] has helped me learn how to communicate better with them and manage them."
At Cox Communications, informal reverse mentoring has been put to use to help steer new product offerings and to introduce new development processes, according to Kevin Hart, executive vice president and CTO. For example, Cox's co-op program and diversity council have provided a forum to explore how millennials consume cable products and content, Hart says. Millennials have also been courted to share their experiences and knowledge to cultivate more creative thinking on the fly.
"Millennials are intellectually curious and are comfortable with experimenting and the idea that it's okay to fail fast," Hart explains. "We are trying to develop new development processes that are more in that millennial mindset."
Set expectations early
While there are plenty of benefits to reverse mentoring, the practice is not without challenges, especially if it's done on an informal basis, notes Rene D. Petrin, president and founder of Management Mentors, a consultancy that creates mentoring programs in organizations. The maturity level of the millennial mentors can be a hurdle, he says, as is lacking a set of ground rules before getting started.
How to set up a reverse mentoring program
- Identify the areas where senior management can benefit from millennial expertise.
- Make sure there is a strong pool of millennial mentor candidates to choose from and be sure they have the ability to work with seasoned leaders with patience and respect.
- Showcase millennial expertise in order to get buy-in from IT leaders, who may be uncomfortable about learning from junior staffers.
- Establish some formal structure to the relationship, including a written contract covering expectations and topic areas to be covered.
- Check in regularly and get feedback on how the relationship is going so it can be continually tweaked to keep both parties engaged.
- Work with HR and corporate training groups for support, and involve additional departments and resources as needed.
To avoid miscues, Petrin advises clients to establish a structure, especially around communications, so everyone is kept in the loop and has similar expectations. "Establish ground rules and processes in terms of frequency of contact, duration of contact, and when it is okay to reach out," he explains. Petrin also recommends creating a written mentoring agreement to specify the topics that will be covered and appointing a mentoring program manager to troubleshoot issues.
Picking the right millennial mentors is also extremely important to a program's success. Candidates should be mature enough to recognize they are dealing with a busy executive; they should be mindful of the senior person's schedule and come to the mentoring sessions well prepared, notes GE's Rao. "You can't just talk your way through it," he says. "These are experienced leaders, and if they think the mentor is wasting their time, they won't pay attention to them."
Mentors also need to be patient and respectful of the differences between generations. "The mentor needs to be able to give answers in a way that's not disrespectful or demeaning," Petrin says. "They also need to be respectful of how older people learn and communicate -- while the younger generation prefers digital communication, older people might be more comfortable picking up the phone and having a conversation."
Reverse mentoring begins with understanding who your mentee is and what he or she is interested in learning, says Chris Pethan, one of the millennial mentors for GE Digital Energy recruited out of the ITLP program. Just like any relationship, chemistry is also key to success, he says.
Pethan, now a 26-year-old IT program manager in the Digital Energy division, was assigned to reverse-mentor two IT leaders in the last four years; one relationship is ongoing while the other fizzled over time.
In the successful relationship, Pethan meets once a month with John McDonald, the regulatory, requirements and standards Leader for Digital Energy. The two discuss topics suggested by Pethan as well as those specified by McDonald, including how to leverage mobile apps and communicate effectively using company blogging tools. With the second arrangement, the mentee was located in China, and the remote setup made it hard to build a similar rapport.
"For the one that worked out well, we are in the same building and we meet face to face so I can show him things in person," Pethan explains. "With the other one, we were never able to connect very well."
While mentoring a top-level executive can be intimidating, he says, there is definitely a payoff. Pethan now has a relationship with an executive, with whom he can freely discuss career strategies and get advice on how to handle specific situations.
It's a similar story for Aaron Chiles, 26, a project manager at Cisco and one of Perry's original reverse mentors. When showing Perry the ropes on how to use Twitter, Chiles picked up some new knowledge of his own. The Cisco VP made it clear he couldn't tweet about anything financially related and was very specific about what he would and wouldn't retweet, Chiles says.
"It was eye-opening to see a different user perspective," he says. "We [millennials] view Twitter as a business communication tool with a personal face. An executive's world is totally different -- it's made me understand that I'm communicating on behalf of Cisco and there are some things I can't say or that could be detrimental to my career."
Perhaps the best part of the reverse mentoring relationship with Perry is that it's opened doors to opportunities that might not have emerged without that executive face time. "It's definitely helped not only from a connection standpoint and a visibility standpoint, but also from a confidence perspective," Chiles says. "When you see the value that Lance or whatever executive is getting from your help, it makes you see we're all just people at the end of the day."
Longtime Computerworld contributor Beth Stackpole has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.