Balancing Act: Reverse mentors teach executives

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My 12-year-old son has taught me that his generation participates in social networking entirely on their phones. He showed me how to post a photo on Instagram, follow others, tag people and spark conversations on the small screen in my hand.

In the past few years, I have become smart enough to realize that the younger generation is way ahead in adapting to the newest ways of communicating and connecting and that there's no shame in asking them to teach me how to keep up.

Many in my generation do fabulously in their career paths and soar to the top of businesses or organizations. Then they hit a wall -- keeping up with technology and a new mind-set.

In a trend called reverse mentoring, companies are pairing grizzled veterans with young up-and-comers. The arrangement works to retain eager millennials and keep older executives technologically and socially relevant. It's going on at big companies, including Cisco Systems Inc., Johnson & Johnson and Mars Inc., where formal programs are in place.

It also has taken off at small companies, where informal reverse-mentor relationships are born of mutual respect and candor.

Reverse mentoring is gaining traction for all the right reasons, said Terri Scandura, a professor of management at the University of Miami School of Business Administration. Even baby boomers who might bristle at the idea of being mentored realize the value in learning what motivates Gen Y and how to market to them, she said.

Citibank launched a program that will pair 15 senior executives from the bank's Latin America regional office with 15 graduate and undergraduate University of Miami business students. The duos will meet at least once a week for six months to work on specific projects that will take a fresh look at mobile payments, communicating with millennial generation customers, social media, the digital retail business, and creating compelling job pitches for young talent.

"Our senior executives need to clearly understand trends and what motivates the new set of young professionals," said Jorge Ruiz, the Miami-based head of digital banking for Citibank's Latin America office. "They are not just our future clients but also our next leaders."

The biggest obstacle to reverse mentoring is pride. Mr. Ruiz said using students as mentors instead of young workers brings in a fresher perspective and a different relationship than being mentored by someone a senior executive might manage.

Cindy Krischer Goodman, CEO of BalanceGal LLC, can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com.


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