Every month, Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke meets 28-year-old Paul Wilkinson for a mentoring session. In this time Mr Wilkinson, who works in the British supermarket’s technology research and development division, teaches his boss everything he knows.For this is not the traditional professional development practice in which a young, junior employee is given career advice by a senior manager. Instead, the roles are reversed.
Mr Clarke is keen to gain insights into his employee’s generational mindset, particularly regarding the use of technology. “It’s essential that we focus on how our customers will be shopping 10, even 20 years from now . . . The real leap today is to think like a digital native, someone who has grown up with these digital devices and channels. These mentoring sessions help me to do that, to understand how our customers will think, interact and operate in the future.”
Jack Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, was one of the first to champion reverse mentoring, back in 1999. As the internet was gaining traction, he paired twenty- somethings with senior executives to teach them the new technology.In the past few years, this form of mentoring has been spreading rapidly, largely focused on social media and mobile technology but also on diversity issues and how the age group known as millennials want to work.
Katherine Milesi, a partner in the Australian office of Deloitte, the professional services firm, set up a voluntary reverse mentoring programme in 2010. “We identified people who were digital natives and digital dinosaurs. We asked our digital natives to mentor the dinosaurs.”
She says that the one-on-one private sessions enabled senior executives to “ask questions they were too scared of asking in public”.
The personal nature of the programme meant that the dinosaurs could go at their own speed. “Twitter and LinkedIn are new mediums; people gravitate to them at different rates. Some needed hand-holding when they did posts. It built their confidence.”
Unlike formal sessions, led by external trainers, she says the fact that the mentors were from within the company meant that they understood Deloitte’s culture and their mentees’ professional requirements of social media.
Rajashi Ghosh, assistant professor at the school of education at Drexel University, says these kinds of relationships can provide useful insights into diversity. “The younger generation can invite a senior person to put themselves in their shoes. For the mentor, growing up in diverse communities can give fresh perspectives on the workplace, for example on how to integrate women.”
For the young mentor, building a relationship with a senior manager can be very fruitful. Tesco’s Mr Wilkinson says he has “developed a great informal relationship . . . I often email him with things that I find interesting and he’ll email me with ideas he’d like to discuss. We have fascinating, fast-moving conversations, which have given me a great insight into the wider business.”
Nonetheless, he admits that he was at first daunted when something he said to the chief executive resulted in an email to a senior director in the business.
The relationship, he says, has “definitely helped” his personal development. “I’ve never been shy about expressing my opinions with senior people, but having an open and honest relationship with Philip [Clarke] has really helped build my confidence. Philip is very questioning so he’s taught me to think much more critically about what I’m doing, and to be rigorous in challenging my own views and opinions.”
Diane Piktialis, an independent consultant in Massachusetts, says the relationship is a chance for junior employees to find out “how this place really works, who are the connectors, the gatekeepers, how do I meet the right people to get promoted?”
Ms Milesi agrees, describing it as a virtuous circle. “Mentors got insight into a level of business they wouldn’t normally see.”
Getting both parties to buy into the concept is key to the effectiveness of reverse mentoring, says Ms Ghosh. An older manager might feel that being invited to be mentored makes them look as if their skills have fallen behind. “You need to make it clear that the senior person has something to teach the younger generation too. The younger person must be careful to respect their mentee and not make them feel that they are lacking,” she says.
Jo Owen, an entrepreneur and author of the books How to Sell, How to Lead and How to Manage, is dubious about the merits of reverse mentoring, believing it to be a “trendy corporate initiative that sounds funky but is a bit pointless”. He cringes at the concept of senior executives being taught to tweet and update their skills on LinkedIn, likening it to teenagers showing their fathers how to dance.
The value of having someone “close and intimate enough to say ‘this is rubbish’ can be very valuable”, he concedes. However, he believes that companies would be better off promoting younger employees into positions of real responsibility, citing BP, the oil company, as a good example of giving junior high-flyers senior positions.
“This gives the older generation different perspectives”, he says. “It may be the case that there are CEOs who don’t talk to anyone under 50 but that hints at isolation and being disconnected. Any senior executive worth their salt will talk to people about how they actually use their technology.”
Mr Wilkinson insists that reverse mentoring is more than just a box-ticking exercise deployed by the human resources department.
He recalls “talking to Philip about how our stores were using Yammer – an internal system a bit like Twitter – to share concerns about stock availability but no one was responding to them. We discussed making this a two-way conversation and now all our stores and supply chain teams are using Yammer to great effect to address issues with supplies.”He is a fierce advocate of reverse mentoring. “My day job means that I have to keep up to date with the latest technologies, but if that were ever to change I would certainly ask a new graduate to help me keep in touch with the latest developments.”
Reverse mentoring tipsReciprocity
Reverse mentoring should be seen as a more two-way relationship than traditional mentoring. While the emphasis is on the senior person, the younger employee should gain too, perhaps by learning about corporate culture and networks. Used well, it can be a tool for engaging junior employees.
Reverse mentoring needs to be sold to both parties in the arrangement. Senior executives may fear being exposed or patronised by know-it-all youth. Ensure that they are not made to feel as if their skills are redundant.
The emphasis tends to be on new technology and social media, but it need not be restricted to these areas. Think about exploring generational issues within the mentoring sessions, as well as diversity and working styles.