Opinion by Bart Perkins

IT can score with reverse mentoring

That senior executive who has his emails printed out represents a golden opportunity for IT

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Opinion by Bart Perkins

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It can make a lot of sense for an IT department to get involved in reverse mentoring. By imparting knowledge about technology to senior executives who might not be very comfortable using such basic tools as email and the Internet, IT can burnish its image with people who really matter.

Reverse mentoring programs pair younger employees with older executives in order to help the executives learn new technology, social media, current music, etc. The relevant topics are second nature to younger employees but somewhat murky to the executives. Jack Welch popularized reverse mentoring when he was CEO of General Electric, directing 500 top executives to seek younger mentors in order to learn how to use the Internet.

Since then, reverse mentoring has expanded to Hewlett Packard, Ogilvy & Mather, Proctor & Gamble, The Hartford, and many other enterprises. As a result of bringing different generations together, a number of companies report lower turnover among younger employees who served as mentors. These employees become more connected to the enterprise as they learn business terminology, industry practices and the principles of executive management.

However, few IT organizations fully utilize the opportunity to market IT to senior management through a reverse mentoring program. Exploit this chance to improve corporate perceptions of the IT organization and be sure to:

  • Highlight IT strategy. Make sure the IT strategy is well understood by all mentors. They should be able to clearly articulate how IT supports the business and how the major corporate initiatives include an explicit or underlying IT component. Reverse mentoring is an excellent opportunity to improve awareness and understanding of IT’s contribution to the enterprise.
  • Make mentoring duties official. Reverse mentoring is a role, not a job. Make sure that all mentors and their IT supervisors understand what each mentor is supposed to accomplish and how much time these activities are predicted to consume. While some executives will require more support than others, mentoring will unquestionably take time away from normal IT duties.

Determine where the mentoring program should report in your enterprise. If the organizational roles are unclear, managers from HR, Training, Business Relationship Management or other departments may feel threatened. The program’s existence is more important that its reporting structure.

  • Select mentors carefully. Mentors are IT’s representatives to some of the most senior people in the enterprise. At a minimum, mentors must be knowledgeable about the topics the executive wants to discuss. Good mentors also need to have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, be adaptable, and enjoy the give-and-take nature of the educational process.

Effective mentoring requires building trust with senior executives, who may find it difficult to admit their lack of knowledge. Young mentors are sometimes so anxious to demonstrate their expertise that they find it difficult to be patient with an executive who does not grasp a concept immediately. Mentors must be able to match the executive’s pace.

Mentors should see their role as an opportunity for professional growth. Access to senior executives is invaluable and often facilitates two-way mentoring relationships. The young mentors have unique access to senior decision-makers who would not even know their names in most large corporations.

Disgruntled or negative employees do not make good mentors and can harm IT’s reputation, in spite of their technical expertise. The mentors need to believe that the company is on the right path and is supported by excellent IT leadership with a good IT strategy.

  • Train the mentors. Many younger employees, particularly technical staff, need coaching regarding how to communicate effectively in a business environment with people who are old enough to be their parent or even grandparent. While many aspects of mentor training are company specific, at a minimum the mentors need to know the company culture, learn to admit when they don’t know something, and balance their competing roles of technical expert and novice employee effectively.

Mentors who follow corporate cultural norms are more effective. Every organization has its own norms, such as acceptable clothing and how executives are addressed. (In some corporations, particularly outside the U.S., executives are offended when addressed by their first name.) Generational communication norms can also create misunderstandings. For example, millennials often multi-process and respond to electronic messages immediately. However, many boomer executives expect an employee’s full attention and will probably be unhappy if an employee checks texts or emails during a conversation, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Most people are uncomfortable when they don’t know the answer if they are positioned as the expert. Mentors must become comfortable saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” This is a much better response than making an off-the-cuff answer that could be incorrect and mislead the executive.

  • Gather feedback. Reverse mentoring is most effective when the program is well-monitored. Each mentoring assignment should begin with clear objectives against which executive feedback can be gathered. After the program has been in place for a reasonable length of time, mentored executives should be willing to complete a short survey about the program.

In addition, after some mentor/mentee trust has developed, a mentor can begin soliciting the executive’s opinion of IT, starting with open-ended questions such as “What does IT do well and what could be improved?” (When an executive answers, the mentor should listen carefully and take good notes. If disagreements arise, the mentor should ask clarifying questions without getting defensive.) This informal feedback can be extremely valuable to IT management.

Informal feedback, combined with surveys, can be used to improve the program and create metrics to monitor satisfaction.

Reverse mentoring is an untapped opportunity to improve executive perceptions of IT. If your corporation doesn’t have this program, take time to create one or garner support for one being started within another department. Mentors can significantly improve interdepartmental relationships. Moreover, they can informally carry strategic messages into offices that IT might otherwise never be invited to enter.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. Contact him at BartPerkins@LeveragePartners.com.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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