IT puts millennials to work -- as mentors

Beth Stackpole

It's the same story for GE's Rao, who said the firm's reverse mentoring program has taught him as much about how to effectively manage millennials as it has about using social media or learning how to fully leverage his iPad. "Not only did I get up to speed on technology, but on some of millennials' behavior patterns as well," he says. "I've learned that millennials don't want to work 8 to 5, but want flexibility, and that they're not tied to a desktop or a company. [Mentoring] has helped me learn how to communicate better with them and manage them."

At Cox Communications, informal reverse mentoring has been put to use to help steer new product offerings and to introduce new development processes, according to Kevin Hart, executive vice president and CTO. For example, Cox's co-op program and diversity council have provided a forum to explore how millennials consume cable products and content, Hart says. Millennials have also been courted to share their experiences and knowledge to cultivate more creative thinking on the fly.

"Millennials are intellectually curious and are comfortable with experimenting and the idea that it's okay to fail fast," Hart explains. "We are trying to develop new development processes that are more in that millennial mindset."

Set expectations early
While there are plenty of benefits to reverse mentoring, the practice is not without challenges, especially if it's done on an informal basis, notes Rene D. Petrin, president and founder of Management Mentors, a consultancy that creates mentoring programs in organizations. The maturity level of the millennial mentors can be a hurdle, he says, as is lacking a set of ground rules before getting started.

How to set up a reverse mentoring program

  • Identify the areas where senior management can benefit from millennial expertise.
  • Make sure there is a strong pool of millennial mentor candidates to choose from and be sure they have the ability to work with seasoned leaders with patience and respect.
  • Showcase millennial expertise in order to get buy-in from IT leaders, who may be uncomfortable about learning from junior staffers.
  • Establish some formal structure to the relationship, including a written contract covering expectations and topic areas to be covered.
  • Check in regularly and get feedback on how the relationship is going so it can be continually tweaked to keep both parties engaged.
  • Work with HR and corporate training groups for support, and involve additional departments and resources as needed.

To avoid miscues, Petrin advises clients to establish a structure, especially around communications, so everyone is kept in the loop and has similar expectations. "Establish ground rules and processes in terms of frequency of contact, duration of contact, and when it is okay to reach out," he explains. Petrin also recommends creating a written mentoring agreement to specify the topics that will be covered and appointing a mentoring program manager to troubleshoot issues.

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