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Reverse mentoring

Underst ‘anding the real benefits of learning from millennials.


Millennials are corporate assets ‘and “crown jewels” with the potential to generate value for organisations. As a leader, your organisations’ competitive edge ‘and career may lie in leveraging the knowledge of millennials through reverse mentoring.

When we think of mentoring, we conjure up images of experienced executives with a higher age ‘and rank, sharing ideas with some younger, junior ‘and usually less experienced individuals. Experience is essential in organisations ‘and more so in mentorship. Nevertheless, does an experienced executive have something to learn from a millennial with no business experience or visibility in the organisation?

The age-old saying that ‘you never stop learning’ is a truism. Despite our ingrained biases, older executives at the workplace have a lot to learn from “millennials” through reverse mentoring.

Reverse mentoring is a social exchange whereby a senior ‘and more experienced individual seeks mentorship from a younger ‘and less experienced individual who holds a wealth of knowledge or skill on a particular topic that is growing ‘and constantly evolving.

The concept of reverse mentoring was born in 1999 by Jack Welch, a management guru ‘and former CEO of General Electric, upon realising that he ‘and his senior management team were challenged when it came to using the internet. To bridge this digital challenge, Welch directed 500 of his top executives to find junior-level mentors in their 20s ‘and 30s who were knowledgeable about the internet to teach them computer skills.

Since 1999, there has been a shift from the traditional mentor-protégé model perpetuated by a differential in experience, towards the reverse mentorship model where junior employees “mentor up” their older ‘and senior counterparts in bridging the digital divide.

The practice – predicated on the premise that everyone within an organisation has something significant to contribute to another’s personal ‘and professional growth – has been adopted in leading corporates including United Healthcare, Target, Tesco, Cisco, Ogilvy ‘and Mather, P&G, Hewlett Packard ‘and Deloitte.

The power of ‘mentoring up’ lies in fostering deliberate interactions between leadership ‘and millennials through cross-talk ‘and discussion.

Two-way street 

Reverse mentorship must not always flip the traditional mentor-protégé model on its head. A “reciprocal” mentoring model is recommended where each party brings something to the table.

The successful reverse mentorship interaction between Ron Garrow, 50, MasterCard’s Chief HR Officer ‘and Rebecca Kaufman, a Gen-Y mentor, illustrates this reciprocity.

In late 2013, Rebecca, was a young member of the communications team at MasterCard ‘and only 18 months into her career. As a ‘digital native’ she was social media savvy.

Garrow reached out to a Gen-Y mentor in the wake of a report that indicated that MasterCard had a weekly social media audience of 30 million people whom he wanted to engage. He had worked for 32 years in the conservative banking sector. He was “tech impaired” ‘and felt intimidated by social media having grown accustomed to the bureaucracy of “multiple approvals” before any information was shared publicly.

Mentoring up

Rebecca volunteered to “mentor-up” Garrow by helping him sign up for a Twitter account, learn how to engage on social media ‘and build his personal br ‘and by crafting tweets based on profiles of influential HR professionals.

This relationship proved valuable to Garrow, Kaufman ‘and MasterCard. Garrow was able to confidently articulate himself on social media while Kaufman got a boost in her career when she was recruited to help the company design internal communications in a way that appealed to millennials. In her short tenure at MasterCard, Rebecca has held several critical roles including managing MasterCard’s digital ‘and social media platforms globally.

Beyond social media

Reverse mentoring is not limited to technology ‘and social media. According to Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a University of Minnesota professor who has extensively researched the topic, organisations should go beyond the fad ‘and align the practice to a strong business need.

Chaudhuri finds it especially useful in underst ‘anding current organisational issues ‘and trends, driving fresh ideas ‘and strengthening an organisations’ competitive edge.

Any organisation that wants to maintain an influence in the market by continuously offering relevant products ‘and services must maintain a pulse on millennials who hold a large share of the global purchasing power.

According to a survey by Deloitte The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2014, millennials will make up 75 per cent of the global workforce by 2025. Through reverse mentoring, corporates can use millennials as sounding boards to discover valuable insight on their distinct behaviours, preferences ‘and interests ‘and apply it to manage talent.

Robert Kanyua is the Managing Principal at Pro Excellence Management Ltd.


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