More and more companies are warming up to the idea of reverse mentoring.
It might be un-Indian to flip the traditional roles of mentor and mentee, but with reverse mentoring, companies in India are learning to do just that as young executives in their twenties tutor senior executives and department heads in workplace technology and social media.
Though not exactly a new trend, reverse mentoring took time to catch on in India Inc.
So what gains have companies made from it and what challenges do they face in India?
More importantly, how significant is reverse mentoring as a strategy that puts the onus on millennials, who form the young workforce today but will be at the helm in a couple of decades?
Peyush Bansal, founder and CEO at Lenskart, feels younger workers may not have the professional experience of their potential mentees, but "their understanding of new media and technology is vast, native and adaptive".
On lessons from this practice, he says: "Reverse mentoring provides senior executives with the opportunity to assimilate knowledge from a different generation. One outcome is that the organisation becomes a self-learning organisation, but the biggest outcome is that we have a very engaged workforce across levels."
Tackling challenges, Bansal believes, depend on processes and methodologies that an organisation adopts.
"Taking time to determine which team members are best suited to work with each other is also important - mentors should not be chosen just because they're young and mentees should be vetted for their openness to learning. The meetings between mentors and mentees should be structured, with ground rules (for instance, is communication through Skype allowed or should all meetings be in person?) and parameters (determining whether learning how to use a particular platform, such as Wikipedia, is a constructive use of time and valuable skill for the mentee) in place from the outset."
He adds reverse mentoring in a structured manner is strategically advantageous. It means an organisation has confidence in the younger workforce, it generates cross-learning and there is a free flow of innovative ideas and thoughts.
Christopher Abraham, head of Dubai campus, SP Jain School of Global Management, says, " Reverse mentoring can be included within existing mentorship programmes. The key focus should be on matching employees of different generations and to encourage all involved to regularly exchange ideas and challenge each other."
DP Singh, vice-president and HR head-India/South Asia at IBM, says, "The power of mentoring and reverse mentoring is an essential cog in the learning wheel of a senior executive. I have been personally mentored by very young people. Recent examples include social media and understanding the LGBT community. This has been a win-win situation where senior executives become well-informed and young employees get a wider exposure through interactions."
Reverse mentoring is slowly becoming hygiene after a quiet entry. As you embrace it, here is a list of dos and don’ts that you need to follow to reap the benefits from this initiative
Work together to come up with new ideas: Reverse mentoring makes you more creative, especially about ways to reach younger consumers or market a product online
Make it a two-way street: Engaging with a younger mentor enriches your daily experience on the job and increases the sense of a shared dialogue in office
Connect to technology faster: Broadening your sources of information to include online databases and social media applications lets you stay in the loop
Look beyond the ordinary, regular: A younger person can introduce you to newer audiences, trendy thinkers and ideas that you might have missed
Don’t let the tail wag the dog: Get as much tactical feedback as possible from your young advisor, but be wary about letting a reverse mentor dictate work strategies
Stay within the parameter of work: The under-30 crowd might be hip to tech trends, but they don't always understand how to use social media in a business context
Don't ignore privacy and confidentiality issues: If you don’t, your mentor might end up blurting out to the world some of your personal information, pictures or even trade secrets
Don’t let your mentor persuade you to take unnecessary risks: in this post-Lehman Brothers world, sometimes you need to say no
Singh cites an example where reverse mentoring allows a team of handpicked young people to be part of a shadow board.
"As a part of this programme, a similar situation is given to the young employees and the senior leaders to analyse how differently they would deal with it. It helps bring out the innovative approach taken by youngsters to solve a problem, and aims to cause better understanding between the top leaders and young employees."
IBM has a large millennial workforce and it has taken initiatives to endure this group reverse mentors executives to become more socially networked and digitally skilled.
Singh says an inclusive culture at IBM has helped it adapt to reverse mentoring.
"Time invested in any mentoring relationship is a key to success and with the busy schedules of senior executives, this becomes a challenge. We understand that skills are the new currency, and IBMers leverage self-development opportunities such as reverse mentoring to continually acquire new skills."
Employers need robust, nuanced talent strategies and analytics to better understand employees as individuals to make the most of their skills, Singh says.
On the strategic impact of reverse mentoring, he therefore feels that "a present-day millennial who has worked with a leader who is open to learning and feedback would inevitably take on that competency and act as a catalyst for change. They, too, would inculcate the same behaviour in their teams".
But there are hindrances - and much of that comes from who we are as a society. HR and business strategy professional Jappreet Sethi, points out that in India, we have a strictly hierarchical society.
"We are the only country in the world that has a concept of the Hindu undivided family, where you have a karta (manager) of the house. That has psychologically remained in our society. We are not very open as a country to learning anything from anybody junior."
He explains that the number of years of experience is valued in traditional companies while curricula in schools and colleges remained largely the same for years before the advent of the internet.
People who had read more books and attended more conferences were generally considered more literate.
But today, kids are seen as being "smarter" because they are using new technology and know new things better.
"Smart leaders, even those who are more than 50, want summer interns because they can look at things without polished eyeballs," points out Sethi.
He says that in India "traditional" industries have been slow to adopt the idea of reverse mentoring, though they are slowly waking up to its potential.
Even in start-ups, which are primarily young ventures, a lot of co-founders are learning from their juniors, notes Sethi, who is a co-founder of YoStartups.
Going by his experience, Abraham concludeS that reverse mentoring may not replace traditional programmes entirely, but "senior executives will certainly get disruptive thinking and fresh ideas from an organisation's rising stars and increase connectivity, communication and collaboration to enhance organisational success."
Many forward-thinking organisations including ANZ, Telstra, Cisco, Proctor & Gamble and Time Warner have embraced this non-traditional concept and are reaping discernible benefits.
Catching on to this global trend, many Indian corporations, including Bharti Airtel, are exploring the possibilities of this growing phenomenon of getting millennials to mentor seniors.
Why millennials? Because they are more enterprising, more tech-savvy and more collaborative.
Planning and executing a proper reverse mentoring programme would need to carefully consider the following key factors to ensure success:
The most critical component of a successful reverse mentoring programme is setting the expectations of everyone involved by clearly defining goals and consistently measuring them.
All the stakeholders involved need total agreement on the process and outcomes and communicate regularly to iron out any ambiguities.
In a typical reverse mentoring relationship, it should be clearly understood that both parties act as mentor and mentee to each other and both exhibit the willingness to learn.
Reverse mentoring can be designed to benefit all if it is consciously embedded as art of the company culture and meticulously built over time.
Trust and transparency have to be the ultimate hallmark in such a relationship, where both parties trust each other and are open with their thoughts and feelings.
When the above factors are carefully adhered to in a reverse mentoring programme, both parties are able to overcome differences in communication styles, coming from differing generations, and are also open to seeing different situations and challenges from different perspectives.
Christopher Abraham is Head of Dubai campus, SP Jain School of Global Management.