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Put the youngsters in charge. How old and young alike learn from one another in the digital company (part I)

Young employees know more about digital tools and tricks than many managers. Reverse mentoring offers companies a big opportunity to make their management fit for digitalisation.

6 minutes 6 minutes
Table of Contents
The master once knew everything and the apprentice nothing. This was perhaps never really the case, but nowadays things are viewed and embraced differently within companies. Reverse mentoring is the name given to the practice that involves young employees – the digital natives – helping experienced top managers to get to grips with digital tools and use them for their work.

Nobody is sure who first came up with the idea. It was back in 1999, however, when Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, made it popular. He said in an interview that he had met a CEO in London who told him that he was a mentee. Welch was taken aback: why was this successful man a mentee? The manager explained how critical time was at his company and said that he wanted to know quickly how the Internet could benefit him and his company. Accordingly, he sought out a young, smart employee who explained to him how the Internet worked. Welch was so taken by the idea that when he got back to GE, within 48 hours he had called on every senior manager to seek out a young, bright mentor in their departments that would make them fit for working with the Internet. He also found it valuable that it simultaneously broke up the strict hierarchy of the organisation.

Benefit from young people’s skills

This approach has been growing in popularity ever since. The two strongest arguments in favour of reverse mentoring as a CPD measure: it is simple and inexpensive, because it uses resources that are within the company anyway. The biggest hurdle is suppressing conventional hierarchical thinking. Some bosses find it difficult to be told by a young employee how to use Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter and to ask questions and listen. Others worry about the confidentiality of the information. Could the junior employee make these knowledge gaps public? Such uncertainties can be cleared out of the way beforehand through agreements. The chances of the organisation changing as a result of this generational exchange are big and important for the future of work. Here, it is the mentees in particular that have to be well prepared so that the project is also a positive experience for the junior mentor. Reverse mentoring is still used at General Electric to this day. Daimler has also introduced reverse mentoring as part of its Leadership 2020 project. Sixty tandems involving upper management levels have now worked together throughout the world (Germany, USA, China, Brazil and Japan). The focus of the exchange is on how to get to grips with apps, social networks, the digital workplace, the blockchain and artificial intelligence, but there is also an emphasis on subjects such as the new world of work, mobile working and work-life balance. At many companies in a wide range of industries reverse mentoring has long since been the tool of choice: Henkel uses it worldwide, as do Robert Bosch, Proctor & Gamble, Citicorp, Cisco, Lufthansa, Hewlett Packard, Ogilvy & Mather, Bank Austria, Deutsche Telekom, Credit Suisse and Axa.

Indicator: is the boss online?

The British consultancy Freeformers recognised in summer 2017 that there is still a great deal to do to make companies fit for the future of work. It examined how many CEOs from the 100 companies listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange Index (FTSE) are active online. The figure really wasn’t that high: just 14 had a Twitter account in their own name or as a CEO that represented the company. In 2017, however, tweets had actually been sent from just seven of these accounts. The consultants see this as evidence that executive boards are less familiar with the new digital tools, even though they are of relevance to the company’s technical possibilities and matters relating to its future. That is why they have developed a reverse mentoring service where they bring together students from their network with CEOs. It goes without saying that the digital natives benefit just as much from the exchange as the top managers. They extend their network and get new perspectives on the company, the world of work and the future.

A kick for the organisation

The interesting aspect of it all is not just the personal knowledge enhancement, the learning curve of getting to grips with digital tools, but also the actual effect it has on the organisation. The fact that an experienced manager can be taught about the digital world by a youngster brings with it the advantage that the exchange goes way beyond this. The company’s top management suddenly has contact with its basis, with the young people – the target group of the future. Focusing on this, the BBC launched a reverse mentoring project last autumn. The broadcaster is losing its young audience. Even at Radio 1, which is targeted at young people aged between 15 and 29, the average age of the listener is 33. ‘The idea came from a presentation given by young BBC employees, who pointed out that the proportion of managers in the TV and radio editorial offices under the age of thirty was particularly low,’ says James Purnell, director of radio and education at the BBC. In 2016/17 the figure was just 0.1%. It provides food for thought when you consider that the founders of Google, Facebook and Apple were all aged 30 or younger. Now the entire management team is set to be linked up with young mentors in order to learn and understand how young people think nowadays, what they like and how they use various media forms. By doing so, the BBC is looking to reinvent itself for the next generation.

In part II there will be an interview with a reverse mentoring tandem at Robert Bosch.

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