Reverse Mentoring: Getting the “Tech-generation” as mentors to your senior team!!

Sep 1, 04

This Month

Some attribute the origins of mentoring to Homer, one of the ancient Greek story tellers. In his classic tale, The Odyssey, the King of Ithaca, asks his friend Mentor to look after his son Telemachus while he fought to win the Trojan War. Others say it comes from 18th century French writer and educationist Fenelon and his novel of instruction Les Adventures de. Other Ancient civilizations seem to have had mentors or advisors too!
Whatever the origins, mentoring is considered a powerful form of influence in organizations today.

This issue discusses Reverse Mentoring, a process that acknowledges the contribution and the unique skills that the Tech-Generation is bringing to the workforce.

I hope you will enjoy it. I look forward to your feedback.

Thank you,

Jigyasa (

Reverse Mentoring: Getting the “Tech-generation” as mentors to your senior team!!

“The year 1981 was very special – ‘Chariots of Fire’ won the Oscar for Best Picture, IBM officially launched the PC, and generation Y was born.”

Kevin Kruse

Consider the following statements:

“For the first time in history, we have youth knowing more than adults about something central to society, and that’s technology”, said Dennis Harper, who founded Generation www.Y, a national student computer training program, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
“Recently, I was with a young researcher, albeit one that was a bit unusual, that had actually wired a web browser into his eyeglasses. As he was having a conversation with me he was actually bringing up my web page to read about me. This was a bizarre experience, but except for watching his eye movements, I was pretty much unaware that while he was talking to me he was also reading about me. I was even unaware of how he was using his left hand in his pocket to cord in keystrokes to bring up my Web page, while seamlessly talking with me. I was completely blown away that he could do these things in parallel and relatively undetectable to me” John Seely Brown
“Executives are beginning to realize that knowledge isn’t a one-way street. It’s in everyone’s best interest to share expertise”, Jerry Wind, Director of the Wharton Fellows Program.
Today, if organizations truly want to maximise the potential of its people, they must consider Reverse Mentoring and even take it a step further: consider a partnership of the youth and seniors. The current times are demanding a set of skills and capabilities that the 30 under generation seems to be naturally blessed with and is essential for anyone who does not wish to go the way of the dinosaurs.

The traditional role of mentoring has always allowed a younger employee to be guided by an older employee in a senior position. The underlying assumption being, seniors having attained a certain degree of success would be able to offer advice on what it takes to achieve success and be able to offer guidance and act as a sounding board to the youngsters to new challenges or difficult situations.

Unique skills brought by the Tech-generation

Tech savvy: A study of internet usage by college students in the US showed that 20% of the students had begun using computers between the ages of five and eight! According to Marc Prensky, the tech generation has amassed an average of close to 10,000 hours playing video games; more than 200,000 e-mails and instant messages sent and received; nearly 10,000 hours of talking, playing games, and using data on cell phones; all before they finished college. Information overload is unknown to them. They know of no other way. In fact, they seem to thrive on it.

Multitasking and parallel processing: SMSing, listening to music, having an animated discussion with a group of friends and surfing all takes place in parallel without any reduced efficiency. The fast changing business environment requires more and more of multitasking and parallel processing from people at all levels.

The ability to bricolage: Bricolage is the ability to make or put together something using whatever materials happen to be available. The dynamic changes at the workplace calls for an ability to sift through loads of information to study trends, draw conclusions, build and act on those that are relevant.

Discovery based or Experiential Learning: Gone are the days when the maximum learning happened in a traditional classroom environment. Youth today prefer to plunge in first, seeking solutions, adapting to the challenges as they go along. Seeking advice, sharing experience, maximising technology seem to be part and parcel of their lives.

Here is how three organizations are using Reverse Mentoring:

GE: Jack Welch made mentoring from youngsters compulsory for nearly 600 of his senior people when he realized the potential of the web as a business tool and discovered that it was the youth who truly understood and embraced technology. Pam Wickham who guided Jack Welch on Internet Training took him through everything from bookmarks to competitor websites during their one hour sessions.

Proctor and Gamble (P&G): P&G uses reverse-mentoring programs to impart a fresh perspective in the areas of diversity, biotechnology or IT.

Lois Lehman-McKeeman, who holds a Ph.D. in toxicology mentored CIO, Steve David at P&G. This is what she had to say on the process; “We tried scheduling meetings; sometimes that didn’t work. But we tried to meet about once every one to two months. . . . frequently, we met over lunch, in part because that was convenient, but Steve also came to the lab, and so we actually did some things in the lab.”

“I mapped out what I thought would be literally like a course of instruction . . . although the more I worked with Steve and I saw what things interested him or how he reacted and learned different things, I just tried to cater my discussions to things that I knew would pique his interest. We started from the very fundamental concepts of the building blocks of ‘What is a gene?’ and ‘What is DNA?’ and moved up to some fairly high-tech technology and application of technology.”

Wharton School of Business: The school offers business executives an opportunity to be mentored by graduate students who have demonstrated an excellent grasp of technology. Each reverse-mentoring pair spends time face-to-face, exchanges knowledge via e-mail and phone.
What does it take to ensure that Reverse Mentoring succeeds?

Identify the areas that will fall under the scope of mentoring. Be clear on what you would like to accomplish whether it is learning a subject, getting a fresh perspective or understanding trends.
Identify the right mentors: Ensure that the selected mentors are passionate about what they know. This will make it easier for them to overcome the barriers of age, hierarchy and other inherent challenges.
Allow room for experimentation to see what works best.
Opportunities for dialogue and interaction to get feedback about the process address concerns and seek clarifications.
Arrange for open sessions that address issues and concerns (nervousness of mentors for example) on how the process will work.
It is critical to find a common ground. Seniors would be more interested in learning from the business point of view, repercussion and impact on business while the mentor would be coming with in-depth subject expertise with little focus on the business.

Resources on Reverse Mentoring and the “Tech Generation”

John Seely Brown’s talk “Learning, Working & Playing in the Digital Age”
Coaching the boss; An interview with CIO Steve David and Lehman-McKeeman on their experience in reverse mentoring at P&G.
Here are some tested tips from technically savvy multitaskers.
A great article by Marc Prensky on Capturing the Value of “Generation Tech” Employees from Strategy and Business


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