Above the Trees
Recipe For Growth
Executives Learn From Employees Lower Down on the Food Chain
Posted Apr 1, 2004 12:46 PM CDT
By Terry Carter
How do corporate behemoths like the Seattle area’s Microsoft Corp. and Starbucks Coffee Co. address the need for growth when they’re al- ready huge? Well, the big fish has heard from the smaller fry.
Organizers added that twist to the agenda in January when nearly 40 executives from major corporations gathered in Seattle for the quarterly meeting of the Wharton Fellows Program. This lifelong learning group meets periodically in locations around the world, including the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, to share experiences and offer support for managing change in the business environment.
This time the executives heard from several local entrepreneurs, who spoke about succeeding and growing in the shadow of giants. These entrepreneurs brought news and views from the other end of the food chain.
“It provided an opportunity to interact with someone who has a different perspective,” says Yoram “Jerry” Wind, academic director of the Fellows program and Wharton’s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management.
Reverse mentoring undoubtedly has occurred informally as long as youngsters have worked beside their elders, but formalizing and structuring such relationships is said to have started in 1999 with the legendary, now retired chief executive of General Electric Corp., Jack Welch. The story goes that Welch lacked skill at using the Internet and realized it was a necessary one. He brought in a younger, technologically savvy person in the company to help him with it and ordered more than 600 managers to do the same—become the student of someone younger and lower in the corporate hierarchy.
The idea took off. Reverse-mentoring programs have been popping up all over, including at such giants as General Motors, Deloitte & Touche and Procter & Gamble.
“We started out on how to use Outlook and manage e-mail,” says James W. Wall, national managing director of human resources for Deloitte & Touche. But he soon learned that the relationship wasn’t limited to technology. Rather, that topic was merely a catalyst for substantive and more meaningful discussion, he says.
Says Wall, “We’re operating in a world with a mind-bending pace of change, and what better stalking horse for that kind of discussion than technology?”
Wall acknowledges that reverse mentoring isn’t for everyone. To be worthwhile, the relationship can’t be forced —participants must be compatible. “In some cases, it didn’t work because mentoring is based on relationships,” he says. Such situations, he adds, have been rare.
Deloitte began an informal reverse-mentoring program in 2001. It began with the executive committee and later was extended to include geographic leaders throughout the company’s many U.S. outposts.
At Wharton, the first reverse- mentoring program paired MBA students with executives in the Fellows program. But it’s become broader than that now.
“In today’s environment, more executives and CEOs are comfortable with technology,” says Wind. “Now, it’s more of the students providing them with a different perspective on the younger generation. Reverse mentoring is a very powerful concept if you broaden it beyond just the narrow technical area.”
Some consultants suggest that reverse mentoring should be structured, with set times for meeting, specific goals and a definite duration. And they are be- ginning to suggest reverse mentoring as another tool in the over- all emphasis on coaching at high levels in the workplace.
“Mentoring is another kind of coaching,” says Pat Galagan, managing director of content with the American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va. “In a tough economy, many executives are in trouble, and we think there’s more openness on their part to getting honest, candid feedback.”
Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.