Reverse mentoring boosts corporate learning
By Kim Yong-seong
Imagine that you are invited to a brainstorming session at an advertising agency. Young enthusiastic employees are trying to persuade the senior managers to buy their ideas on location-based mobile advertisement services.
However, you can easily tell that the harder the young people try to impress, the more confused the gray-haired seniors become on the other side of the table. “What are these young guys talking about?” murmured the seniors among themselves. At the end of the meeting, the seniors decided to take a look at the idea another time, and the enthusiasm in the young employees' faces drained fast. This is the usual protocol of this company, to “drop it and forget it.” Does this situation sound familiar? How different is your organization from this advertising company?
In most cases, seniors are experienced professionals who know how to get things done the old way. They have the business acumen that fledgling employees don't have and possess network outside of the organization that gets them connected to clients. However, what the seniors do lack is the ability to spot and generate ideas from the hottest new trends. In a fast moving market, lacking a sensitive antenna that detects trends could be detrimental especially in such an industry as advertising. Consequently, leaders who are concerned about their seniors look for ways to teach an old dog a new trick.
We can learn from great leaders about how to tackle such an issue. Back in 1999, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, had a casual talk with a young engineer about the Internet during his business trip to London.
As a seasoned businessman, Welch quickly noticed that there were huge business opportunities in this field. What’s more was that he saw how young employees could provide valuable information and ideas. Upon his return, Welch told his 500 executives to appoint young employees as their respective coaches and learn about the Internet from them.
He himself asked a young employee to teach him about the unfamiliar subject. As a result, managers at GE understood the explosive possibilities about the Internet and started an Internet-based business.
In the meanwhile, being able to influence the senior executives empowered the young employees. This teaching-learning practice in which young employees coach the seniors to learn new topics is called 'Reverse mentoring.'
Reverse mentoring became a hit and spread across companies as business leaders realized the benefits of the new practice. Other business leaders quickly adopted it, and IBM, for example, included it in its formal employee development methodology.
IBM paired senior staff members with young employees and had them learn how to use Facebook and Twitter. Encouraged by their success, this company later had young engineers develop a self-help guide on trendy IT services. As of recently, over 40 percent of the U.S. top companies were employing such reverse mentoring practices as a formal way of developing their senior employees.
Going back to the original scenario, the advertising agency mentioned above is Ogilvy and Mather, an international advertisement firm based in the U.S. Leaders of this company did not waste time in introducing reverse mentoring into the organization once they noticed that managers were losing ground with trend-sensitive clients.
Ogilvy and Mather took the approach one step further and now has its seniors learn about various subjects from junior employees such as music, fashion, SNS, and electric gadgets. Filled with revitalized knowledge of trends, this advertisement agency produces eye-catching commercials year after year.
Reverse mentoring requires humility and a willingness to learn on the part of the experienced managers. Thus, in a culture that values respecting the elders, this approach may be harder to adopt.
So for those who hesitate to take bold steps, here is a piece of wisdom from an old saying: Admit when you don’t know something and you become a fool just that one time.
But if you never admit what you don't know, you will always remain a fool. So whether you become a fool once or forever is all up to you.
Kim Yong-seong is a professor at the Institute of Global Management.