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A new trick corporates use to stay ahead

Last updated on: September 4, 2012 12:18 IST

A new trick which helps corporates stay ahead

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Krish Shankar

Many big corporations in India are trying a new trick to stay at the cutting edge. Here's how Bharti Airtel used it to bridge the skill gap some older workers faced.

In a typical organisational setup, mentorship has traditionally been all about pairing an accomplished and senior leader with a younger colleague to facilitate exchange of guidance, both at a formal and informal level.

It is viewed as a personal development technique, that is, an ongoing relationship of learning, dialogue, challenge and change. The conventional description of a mentor suggests someone who is wise and willing to share his or her knowledge and experiences to help the mentee succeed.

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Photographs: Reuters.

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Your mentor is that trusted ally you go to whenever you're feeling unsure or in need of support.

Simple, right?

In a young country like ours where more than 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 25 and more than 65 per cent below the age of 35, the traditional concept of mentorship may not yield the desired results.

With our population becoming younger, it is essential for organisations to evolve to the needs of new young India.

Within this broad spectrum of change is emerging a technique known as reverse mentoring. This concept, being increasingly adopted by savvy, new-age organisations, turns the old paradigm of mentorship into a higher and more effective collaborative effort.

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The clincher here is that the younger person becomes the mentor and the seasoned senior professional the mentee.

Typically, the mentee has more overall experience (as a result of age) than the mentor (who is younger), but the mentor has more knowledge in a particular area and therefore reverses the conventional relationship.

Clearly, the modern-day notion of an exchange of ideas and knowledge has changed, especially after the phenomenal expansion of the social networks, and the digital and mobile marketing platforms, blurring the rigid and accepted norms of relationships between individuals, teams and organisations.

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Today, an exchange of ideas is no longer restricted to an inner circle of influence, the purview of designations and age.

Reverse mentoring can re-energise older employees, keep younger workers engaged and improve relationships between the different generations in the workplace.

For example, junior mentors can help managers understand how to motivate and retain young workers. They can also share first-hand knowledge of a younger customer base - critical for companies aiming to tap the youth market.

Some companies use reverse mentoring to enhance diversity training for the senior staff. Each successive generation tends to be more open and knowledgeable about diversity in society than the previous generation.

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With reverse mentoring, the junior mentor can help the senior leaders understand the issues around cultural diversity better.

For Airtel, reverse mentoring as a concept was initiated in 2008 post the return of CEO Sanjay Kapoor from the Wharton Business School.

As part of the reverse mentoring programme of Airtel, leaders across the country, including the Airtel Management Board (AMB), and the function heads are mentored mostly by our young managers, hired from the top B-schools of the country, and into their second or third year in the organisation.

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The topics, the seniors are educated on, include brand activation opportunities, downloading apps, fashion trends, latest gadgets or what young people do in their free time. It's not always soft stuff, even hard business strategies get discussed and sometimes adopted by the company.

Today, with over 20 active pairs nationally, we are successfully leveraging learnings from these engagement programmes across all areas of our businesses.

Younger mentors are tutoring senior executives on new campus recruitment programmes or exciting ways of engaging with young potential employees or the consumption of data on mobile devices and the other technology specific interest areas.

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Since the youth today uses different tools to express their feelings, like blogging or social networking sites, the Airtel leadership is proactively working at embedding these insights to enhance our young customers' experience with the brand.

My mentor is a 27-year-old senior business manager Ila Wadhwa, who has taken it upon herself to enlighten me on the aspirations and challenges of young managers.

Thanks to reverse mentoring, many of the senior leaders in AMB are now on Twitter and subscribe to numerous blogs and have started using apps that they normally would not have.

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That said, reverse mentoring is not exactly a new concept.

It was initially advocated by Jack Welch in the late 90s in the nascent days of the internet, when, as CEO of General Electric, he urged 500 of his top executives to reach out to people in the ranks to learn how to best use the internet, with new and fresh perspectives from younger minds, and to stay in touch with the times.

In return, GE's Young Turks found a new way to be seen, understood and appreciated in the company.

Taking the cue from Mr Welch, many global companies in the telecom and technology industries followed suit, including many in India, using reverse mentoring principles to remain competent in an increasingly complex business environment.

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Image: Jack Welch.
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Reverse mentoring programmes could take place within existing mentoring programmes with a little bit of flexibility to match the expectations of employees engaged across different generations. Yet, this comes with a few challenges.

Reverse mentors and their mentees can run into a few stumbling blocks.

A big challenge is persuading senior managers to embrace the role reversal and start listening instead of talking. They need to let go of their leadership role and learn the art of "followership".

They also need to suspend their judgment of the younger generation, often characterised as being less dedicated and loyal to their employer than older workers.

Don't expect your 20-something mentor to have the same work ethics you had when you were in your twenties.

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If you do, then you're likely to shut them out and start coaching them on their careers, which means you're not going to hear all the ideas they're just dying to share with you.

Ensuring the flexibility and buy-in of senior and more accomplished professionals is always a matter of concern and ever so crucial especially when it involves the notion of being mentored by a new or younger employee.

This is where business and organisational leaders must step in with the right interventions to make their point. Leadership should role-model the right behaviour. When a CEO is mentored by a young leader, all others won't see it as a threat.

To create a positive environment the mentee should let go negative biases based on age, gender, culture or the role and should look forward to a great learning experience.

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The mentee, who is about to begin working with a younger mentor, should practise being a follower. Similarly, the mentor should give serious thought to the new role as leader.

Organisations must look at this as a unique new way of boosting workplace ingenuity for greater productivity and ultimately create a business environment that is truly knowledge-driven.

Reverse mentoring is simply another way of brewing your workplace cappuccino in a new way-we have always known that there is a lot we can learn from younger workers and they likewise from us.

In fact, the genesis of Bharti Airtel's association with football club Manchester United called "Airtel Rising Stars" and F1 was through one such mentoring partnership.

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The mentor felt that cricket was for Gen X, while young Airtel customers comprising Gen Y had moved towards football and so should the company.

Sparkplug, our business ideation platform, also thrives on the philosophy of reverse mentoring in which youngsters from across functions come together to discuss, debate and solve a business problem posed to them by the business leaders.

The added twist is that none of them belong to the same function or business as the leader who 'owns' the problem. Thus, what we have is unbridled energy and imagination, ready to be harnessed by the organisation.

Some of our new businesses like direct-to-home have capitalised on this platform by implementing ideas proposed by reverse mentors.

The key to success in reverse mentoring is the ability to create and maintain an attitude of openness to the experience and dissolve the barriers of status, power and position.

Krish Shankar is the executive director of human resources, Bharti Airtel.


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