IT puts millennials to work, as mentors

Business mentoring
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Reverse mentoring helps senior tech execs brush up on social media, mobile skills.

As CIO of General Electric's Digital Energy division, Venki Rao has invested a fair amount of time identifying and developing IT talent. But four years ago, during a boot camp kicking off GE's companywide IT Leadership Program (ITLP) for college recruits, Rao quickly realized the learning opportunity had become a two-way street.

Venki Rao
Venki Rao, CIO of General Electric's Digital Energy division, found he and other senior IT leaders had much to learn from their incoming college recruits.

While GE's seasoned IT staff was able to school the freshman crew regarding GE's business operations and management best practices, incoming millennials had a far better grasp of how to leverage new technologies like mobile apps and social media, knowledge that was lacking among senior staffers, Rao recalls.

Millennials also had different perspective on the work environment, a distinction that Rao thought was crucial for Gen X and baby boomer IT execs to grasp if they were going to effectively manage and collaborate with the next generation.

Rao decided to strike up an informal arrangement with an intern he met at ILTP to get himself up to speed on Facebook and Twitter. Soon after, he launched a formal reverse mentoring program to give his 18 direct IT reports the same kind of training.

"GE is a 130-year-old company, and for most of [the leadership], technology is not a core competency -- they use about 5% of the technology offered," says Rao, who includes his own senior IT employees in that assessment. "It made sense to dig into the pool of ITLP talent to give mentoring."

Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch, widely credited as the first champion of reverse mentoring, rolled out a program in late '90s that leveraged younger employees' knowledge of the Internet to coach GE's top management (see video ).

While the practice isn't as widespread as traditional mentoring, large companies like Cisco Systems, Proctor & Gamble, The Hartford and others have since formalized efforts to use millennials' easy familiarity with digital technologies, especially social media, to teach older employees how to tap into the new capabilities for strategic business advantage. (For details, see How to set up a reverse mentoring program.)

GE CEO Jack Welch describes how he used reverse mentoring to "tip the organization upside down."

As an added bonus, the reverse mentoring initiatives provide managers with insight into millennials' aspirations, allowing companies to foster a culture designed to keep them motivated and engaged as they become the dominant force in the workplace, replacing retiring baby boomers.

"In a few years, half the workforce will be millennials, and executives are going to have to know what makes them tick and how to motivate them," says Lance Perry, vice president, IT customer strategy and success at Cisco Systems. "Unless [executives] have mentors and mentees from that generation, they are going to guess and they're going to fail."

Hierarchy, what hierarchy?

Like Rao, Perry, 55, became convinced IT management had a lot to learn from millennials after hearing one of his college interns talk about getting time with Cisco's executive vice president of sales to discuss an idea simply by calling him directly to ask for a meeting.

"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.

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