Reverse Mentoring Cracks Workplace

Top Managers Get Advice on Social Media, Workplace Issues From Young Workers

Workplace mentors used to be older and higher up the ranks than their mentees. Not anymore.

In an effort to school senior executives in technology, social media and the latest workplace trends, many businesses are pairing upper management with younger employees in a practice known as reverse mentoring. The trend is taking off at a range of companies, from tech to advertising.

Mentors are teaching their mentees about Facebook and Twitter.
The idea is that managers can learn a thing or two about life outside the corner office. But companies say another outcome is reduced turnover among younger employees, who not only gain a sense of purpose but also a rare glimpse into the world of management and access to top-level brass.

Reverse mentoring was championed by Jack Welch when he was chief executive of General Electric Co. He ordered 500 top-level executives to reach out to people below them to learn how to use the Internet. Mr. Welch himself was matched with an employee in her 20s who taught him how to surf the Web. The younger mentors “got visibility,” he says.

Fast forward a decade and mentors are teaching their mentees about Facebook and Twitter.

At Ogilvy & Mather, world-wide managing director Spencer Osborn, 42 years old, says his younger mentors have taught him how to jazz up his Twitter posts, which had a reputation for being “very boring,” and tell him what’s hip on playlists these days. He finds the knowledge valuable in the fast-moving business of advertising and says he believes the program has also helped boost morale and retention at the firm, with many young mentors saying they feel their voices are now being heard.

The younger mentors have learned how to ask candid questions of their mentees. One young mother asked Mr. Osborn for his input on balancing her career with motherhood and child care.

Ultimately, Mr. Osborn says he envisions making Ogilvy’s reverse mentoring program global, using Skype and videoconferencing to connect mentors and mentees at the firm’s more than 450 offices.

Technology and global thinking are changing so quickly that older executives want to catch up, says Lois Zachary, president of Leadership Development Services LLC, a Phoenix-based consulting firm that helps companies implement mentoring programs. “But it also helps younger people get comfortable in a company. It promotes loyalty, it generates trust.”

That’s got younger employees at Hewlett-Packard Co. clamoring for reverse mentoring. While some workers there have already arranged their own informal reverse-mentoring relationships, the company’s Young Employee Network says it wants to formalize the process in the next few months, starting with the several thousand members who belong to the world-wide group. Logistics haven’t been ironed out yet, but they will likely involve virtual communication over the Web.

“This is a great avenue to speak with decision makers,” says Odile Kane, who sits on the network’s leadership board.

Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen, a Watertown, Mass., ad agency, says he was one of the first to volunteer when his company launched a reverse mentoring program last year. Under the program, mentors and mentees meet every three weeks for 90 minutes over lunch or coffee.

The 47-year-old has since come to lean on his mentor, 23-year-old Eric Leist, for guidance on everything from the latest smartphone apps to the layout for a new office. Mr. Graff says the most important lesson he has learned is how to be flexible, including allowing employees to work unconventional hours and to check in from home or a coffee shop.

“There’s an assumption that if you’re senior, you have a lot to teach, and if you’re junior, you have a lot to learn, and I’m saying let’s challenge the status quo,” he says.

Mr. Leist says he was surprised when Mr. Graff began sharing management tips during their lunch sessions. “This allows me to take a step back and see what he sees,” says Mr. Leist.

When Cisco Systems Inc. started its Gen Y Reverse Mentoring Program nearly two years ago, “it became a badge of honor,” says Jeanette Gibson, director of social and digital marketing. “When the word got out that a few execs had a [junior] mentor, others wanted one, too,” she says.

Still, it’s not all smooth sailing. Many older workers bristle at the idea of being mentored by someone younger, especially since they usually have many more years of career experience, says Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, a senior lecturer at Ohio State University who recently co-wrote a research report on the topic.

“It’s a mind-set,” Ms. Chaudhuri says.