U.S. Markets closed

In Reverse Mentoring, Executives Learn From Millennials

Susan Johnston

In traditional mentoring, a seasoned executive might counsel a young up-and-comer about career development or leadership. However, a growing phenomenon called reverse mentoring (or reciprocal mentoring) gives entry-level, often tech-savvy employees the chance to school senior executives about business interests, such as trends in social media, consumer culture and unconventional methods to boost office morale.

Take Bud Kulesza and Tashee Singleton. The two met through the traditional mentorship program at the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) in 2009, when Singleton was seeking professional development opportunities and Kulesza was looking for ways to mold new leaders. Since then, their relationship has evolved into one that thrives on reverse mentoring.

"Tashee opened my eyes to things that I didn't see because of the generational difference," says Kulesza, a retired CFO now doing consulting work. Case in point: Singleton enlightened Kulesza about an adult "play date," a church event where young people meet informally and play games. Singleton suggested applying some of those concepts to attract young professionals to IMA meetings.

"My definition of fun, which might be going to a one-hour [continuing professional education] class and having some cocktails with friends, was very different and wasn't overly attractive to a millennial," says Kulesza. Enticed to try something new, he used Singleton's play-date approach to plan an informal meeting for members of his local IMA chapter in Texas to bond with one another.

[Read: How to Raise Your Social Media Profile.]

Of course, reverse mentoring is rarely one-sided. Thanks to Kulesza and his decades of management experience, Singleton says she learned how to "handle people instead of jumping in and having a comment--how to hold back and let the conversation evolve; those points you don't [learn] in school."

As companies work to retain eager millennials and keep baby-boomer executives technologically and socially relevant, a growing number have created formal or informal reverse mentoring programs, including Cisco, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric.

Tony Lamb, CEO and president of Kona Ice, which has more than 220 individual franchisees of its tropical shave ice trucks, says he hires "the best and brightest of the twentysomething crowd" to educate franchisees--most of them in their 40s, 50s or 60s--about social media and online marketing. These young, creative professionals lead breakout sessions at the company's annual convention and share tips through video tutorials.

[Read: The Best-Paid Moonlighting Jobs in America.]

Lamb believes having younger employees train franchisees improves the brand's online presence, while stressing the importance of having a liaison between the two camps. "Someone has to assume that role because things can get adversarial quickly if there isn't someone to mediate," he says. "I've adopted that role here, so that everyone can see the benefit of this technology."

In addition to training on the latest social media platforms, reverse mentoring gives executives more candid feedback than the highly-filtered intel they normally get, says Andrew Satter, founder and CEO of a New York-based executive coaching company. "Sometimes a younger and more junior person hasn't learned what they can't say," he says. "[They have] fresh eyes and fresh ears and a fresh tongue. They will say and share things because they haven't swallowed the Kool-Aid yet."

Experts say mentoring relationships thrive on trust, respect and candor--but, of course, too much candor can backfire if young employees cross the lines of professionalism. "A junior person can absolutely take it too far," says Satter. "Both parties need to have a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. It's critical for me to be able to gauge what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. Am I going far enough? Am I going too far?"

[See 10 Questions That Will Help You Earn More Money]

Kulesza compares this candor to telling the emperor he's not wearing any clothes. "It's important to do that in a safe environment," he says. "It doesn't have to be public." In his case, though, he points out that since he doesn't manage Singleton or even work at the same company, a miscommunication likely wouldn't jeopardize her career.

On the other side, reluctance to adopt new technology or learn from millennials can be a stumbling block for some experienced workers accustomed to traditional ways of doing business. Satter says this can be to their detriment: "To think that the world is gonna go back to analogue is a mistake."

According to Satter, when confronted by change, humans take a predictable path: First attack it, then ridicule it and ultimately embrace it. "I think you'll find certain pockets of business and commerce where people are more embracing as opposed to less embracing," he says. "I'd rather be part of the change than get run over by it. Organizations that can do that will be much more vibrant and robust than where you have the boomers hanging on by their fingernails."

Still, intergenerational discussions can be challenging at times. "It may make us feel uncomfortable, and we don't always understand where a millennial is coming from, but [that's] all the more reason to have a dialogue," Kulesza says.

More From US News & World Report