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Generation Work

Young mentors teach ‘old dogs’ new tricks

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

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It’s rare to see a student advising a top executive on business strategy, but that’s exactly what Marc Schaevitz, 24, is doing in his free time between classes at the University of Miami, where he is getting a Master of Business Administration degree.

Schaevitz meets regularly with Ana Maria Rojas, 46, head of cards and sales for Citigroup Latin America, advising her about consumer behaviour, social media and mobile technology. He has shared with her some of the apps he and his friends use and the most convenient ways they’ve found to handle their finances.

“I’m trying to help her determine how the bank’s strategies may have to change,” he said. “She’s surprised to learn how rapidly people of my generation expect to get their transactions completed and how many don’t understand some of the basics of credit cards, like annual percentage rates.”

Schaevitz is one of 15 millennial generation students participating in a reverse mentoring program this year at Citigroup’s Latin America office in Miami. In reverse mentoring, the traditional roles are switched: A younger individual mentors an older, more experienced mentee. Typically, recently hired employees are paired with senior executives at their company, but businesses may opt to bring in student mentors instead.

While millennials often help managers and executives get up to speed on social media and other technologies, business leaders have also begun to tap junior-level employees to learn about the latest developments in an academic field such as life sciences or economics. Older mentees also seek advice about recruiting and marketing to millennials or insights about the mentor’s native country.

Charlie Johnston, vice president of human resources at Cisco Systems for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia, consults with three young mentors in the Middle East when he needs to understand cultural differences or wants them to critique his presentations for local audiences. “Reverse mentors become almost like executive coaches,” he said. “They give me feedback and insights I would never have thought of.”  

Reverse mentoring takes off

Reverse mentoring began to take off in the late 2000s, as millennials flooded into the workforce and employers realised their contributions could pay off in multiple ways. The benefits flow both ways. Not only do executives learn from tech-savvy millennials, but young mentors also feel they’re getting recognition and leadership development from their employers and forging connections that could help them advance more quickly.

“The millennial generation wants to have their voice heard early in their careers,” said Wendy Murphy, an associate professor at Babson College in Massachusetts. “Reverse mentorships offer them the chance to contribute at a higher level than they normally could in entry-level positions.”

Not all reverse mentors are millennials. At some companies, recently hired employees from Generation X are also sharing their perspectives with baby boomer executives, who are in their 50s and 60s.

For example, Gen Xer Angela Kyerematen-Jimoh, 39, joined IBM from the banking industry and is now mentoring Rod Adkins, IBM’s 55-year-old senior vice president for corporate strategy. Based in Kenya, she advises him on cultural nuances in conducting business in Africa and helps him connect with financial institutions there.

When a prospective customer asked Adkins to his home for breakfast, she explained that the overture was an important sign of trust and an invitation he couldn’t down. And when Adkins wore a Fitbit wristband to a meeting, she suggested that a formal wristwatch would be more appropriate. “In Africa, we take appearance very seriously,” she said.

Challenges

Adkins and Kyerematen-Jimoh enjoy a productive, collegial relationship, but reverse mentoring presents challenges for business leaders who are used to calling the shots. Some veteran executives simply don’t want to ask elementary questions and reveal their lack of knowledge, especially to rookie employees. They also worry that young employees may be indiscreet and share information from mentoring sessions with co-workers.

Citigroup’s Latin America group has avoided such problems by using students as mentors. “We felt it would be more comfortable and a safer environment,” said Ariel Regatky, head of talent for Citigroup Latin America. “It’s easier to open up and ask questions if you don’t feel you’re being judged by someone at the company.”

Indeed, some employers fear that overly confident millennials may lord their technology skills over executives they’re mentoring and make them feel like digital dinosaurs. Lisa Bonner averted such a generational clash when she helped run a reverse mentoring program at Hartford Financial Services Group. “I met with the millennials at the Hartford and did some coaching to make sure they were always respectful as they shared their technology expertise with the top executives,” she said.

She didn’t try to stifle the millennials, though. One young employee told an executive that his blog should be more personal and not sound like a press release. “The mentor was direct but in a respectful way,” Bonner said, “and the executive changed the blog.”

Some millennials aren’t so bold — at least not at first. Schaevitz felt a bit intimidated by the reverse mentoring opportunity at Citigroup, but has gradually developed a comfortable give-and-take rapport with Rojas. “My heart started to race when I first took the elevator to one of the top floors in Citi’s building,” he recalled. “But it has turned out to be a good pairing. Ana Maria is used to having the lead role and talking all the time, but she is very accommodating to opening up the floor and letting me speak my mind.”

As for Rojas, she has found Schaevitz to be “a patient mentor,” explaining how millennials feel about not just money, but also “religion, life and social relationships.” An unexpected bonus: “It also has helped me to better understand my kids,” she said.

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