IT puts millennials to work -- as mentors

Beth Stackpole

"Here's this college kid calling Cisco's head of sales by his first name and getting 30 minutes on his calendar — my direct staff was mortified," Perry recalls. "Millennials understand how to communicate across boundaries. There isn't this sense of hierarchy that [Gen Xers or baby boomers] get caught up in. They have skill sets and attributes I could benefit from."

Cisco has experimented with reverse mentoring in a variety of programs, but it's the Social Media Reverse Mentoring initiative, started by Cisco's learning group, that has gotten the most play. Perry and three senior IT leaders from his group have gone through the program, and a total of 43 Cisco senior leaders have participated overall.

Over the last few years, Perry has met monthly with a group of 15 to 20 millennial mentors to cover topics like how to use Twitter, the dos and don'ts of blogging, and more recently, the benefits of video blogging. While Perry is immersed in technology all day, he says he's so busy driving strategy that he often doesn't have time to get his hands dirty and explore new capabilities — a limitation that creates anxiety among many of his IT peers as well.

"So many execs don't want to admit how much they don't know," he says. "This [millennial] generation was born with computers in their hands — it's ingrained in the way they listen to music, get a trip scheduled, or get coffee or meals. They have taught me that the things that scared me are actually easier to do once you get over your fear."

Take video blogging, for example. Now that Perry is comfortable with both the video hardware and software, and with being on camera, he regularly sends video messages in lieu of emails to his team of 12 direct reports and 300 employees worldwide. "Now I do these 30-second video messages to recognize employees, and that simple shift from email to video totally changed how it was received," he says. "With a quick video message, you can see what someone's expression is and you can tell if they are passionate. It gives people something more in a message than the old way of doing things."

Working with his millennial mentors has also given Perry a deeper understanding of what millennials like and don't like in a work environment, which is very different from his priorities when he was first starting out. "These guys come in and ask about flexibility, what the company gives back, what Cisco's position is in the community," he says. "I never asked those questions when I was interviewing for a job. For me, it was about money. For them, it's more about the experience than the ladder they're climbing."

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