Large companies find it difficult to share new ideas, and nearly impossible to test and implement them. Small, scrappy startups seem to have the upper hand when it comes to rapid innovation. But that doesn’t mean corporations can’t leverage their size in this arena. Consider reverse mentoring, an innovative method where large corporations have a distinct advantage.

What is Reverse Mentoring?

The concept of reverse mentoring is not new. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is given credit as the inventor of the first reverse mentoring program back in 1999. Basically, older executives are paired with younger employees who teach them about new technology, including social media.

Younger person and older person, reverse mentoring

Simply put, understanding modern technology tools and trends goes a long way in today’s startup climate. To learn more about running a reverse mentoring program, we talked to two people from AXA, a global leader in insurance and asset management: Alice Pellerin, Digital project manager, and Guillaume Cabrere, CEO of AXA Lab Silicon Valley.

AXA’s program was launched in 2014 by Karima Silvent, Global HRD, with the idea that employees should be able to ask questions of in-house “experts” to give them more knowledge and tools with which to make informed business decisions. Feedback is very positive, with a 97 percent satisfaction rate.

AXA logo

The multinational company took hundreds of its top executives and asked younger employees to be their mentors, shattering our typical idea of the mentor-mentee relationship—at least in terms of age.

If you’ve witnessed the raw comedy of your mom or dad trying to use Snapchat, you know there’s a learning curve. It’s no secret that millennials are quicker to download and tinker with the latest apps than their older counterparts, making them self-taught experts on technology trends and best practices. These new skills are becoming critical for executives to understand and leverage social media platforms and strategy.

Younger person on winners podium with social media icons on it

How is the mentorship program structured?

Executives (mentees) are paired with younger mentors for six one-hour sessions. The first session, “getting started,” is designed to allow the mentee to express their interests and curiosities, so that each mentor can customize the content they share with their mentee. Many mentees request to cover social media apps to optimize their LinkedIn or Twitter accounts and to be more in touch with the digital generations (Generations X and Y). During each subsequent session content is introduced and explored.

The point is to give the older generation, who are used to feeling like wise masters of their domains, the confidence they need to work with the both the latest and most popular technologies. Think Twitter and yes, even Snapchat. They perform tasks on mobile, tablet and laptop and use apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram. In the process, executives start to realize which products attract and retain significant daily audiences and how they can use these tools in their daily lives.

In addition to social media, hot topics include privacy and data protection. Practices that may seem obvious to Generation X and Y can be valuable and enlightening to older mentees. For example, “don’t use the same password everywhere,” and, “try Paypal instead of entering your credit card number.” Topics can go deeper, such as identifying what kind of data an app is using from your mobile smartphone. There are also exercises to clarify the usage of internally designed apps.

AXA has been developing content since 2014, and mentors now have the capacity to share over 400 activities/modules of information. To give some context, it would take over 26 hours to cover all the material AXA has on hand for this program.

What are the benefits of reverse mentorship?

One theme AXA noted over the course of establishing the mentorship program is that mentees seek to understand technologies related to their day-to-day lives versus business technology. For that reason, content has been integrated to address this need for exposure to apps used daily by the masses. Once mentors demystify these technologies and mentees understand how digital tools can improve their personal lives, executives see a shift in their digital mindset at work.

Cabrere offered some perspective on the practical applications of this program. “After being exposed to this program, which is all about building self-confidence on technology topics, the older mentees are ready to re-engage with their teams. They now have the knowledge to properly vet the pending projects that were stalled because they didn’t grasp what it was about.”

AXA emphasizes that this program isn’t benefiting just one side of the table. Mentors are able to ask mentees about everything from personal development to topics related to business or management. “It’s mutually beneficial. Of course the senior execs learn stuff. But the younger generation also gets direct access to some of our top leaders and can benefit from their advice and insights, even outside of the program. This is a pretty unique value proposal!” said Cabrere.

Younger and older person exchanging ideas

An environment where young professionals have access to seasoned executives reminds us of Silicon Valley’s culture of being able to contact a successful investor and ask almost anything. Still, there are differences. AXA’s program leaders make it frictionless for these pairs to find each other and build a one-on-one relationship. Often, the pair will build a strong relationship and share knowledge both ways.

“The benefits of reverse mentoring are human, above all. When two distant worlds, like two generations in the age of bitcoins and Pokemon Go, lack knowledge of each other and don’t even know how to talk to one another, the frustration bred by mutual incomprehension and the resulting daily annoyances on either side are as harmful to personal well-being as to workplace efficiency,” says Pellerin.

Younger and older person walking into the sunset

What are the challenges of reverse mentorship?

Change inevitably meets resistance, but AXA’s executives quickly overcame doubts about the mentorship program. “After the first few sessions … senior execs—really high in the food chain—were admitting this program was great and that they learned a lot,” said Cabrere. That required the Learning & Development teams to address 3 key challenges: confidentiality, content and timing.

The program’s emphasis on emerging technologies such as social media makes the potential sharing of personal information a concern. For example, imagine helping your boss upload their personal photos to Facebook. For that reason, project leads intentionally match pairs from different departments. In addition, the mentor and the mentee both signed a mini-NDA before the first session, to make sure we’d create a 100% secure environment (i.e. “no dumb questions” and “what is said during the session stays off the record”). This helps prevent any awkwardness during day-to-day work relationships.

Another challenge is that global teams sometimes require tailored content in order for the program to provide relevant value. For example, project leaders in AXA’s Asia offices appended their program to include local technology trends. Messaging app WhatsApp is ubiquitous in many regions of the world, but in Asia, Reach has replaced WhatsApp.

Pellerin mentioned that one of the most common challenges in administering the program is simply finding available meeting time slots. This is an important task for project leaders, who connect mentor/mentees and rearrange calendars often to accommodate busy executives. AXA has found that maintaining a cadence of one hour-long session every few weeks is ideal for effectiveness and also realistic. The typical mentorship formally spans six months, but these professional relationships are encouraged to continue informally.

How can this innovation technique be useful for corporations?

By design, reverse mentoring involves the pairing of employees from different generations who can offer unique experiences and perspectives to their partner. The sheer size of corporations make them the most likely entities to have enough diversity of age, experience, and expertise to leverage such a strategy.

One could argue that startup employees and young entrepreneurs (especially in Silicon Valley) can easily reach out to tech industry veterans for advice over a cup of coffee. That doesn’t necessarily ensure a mutually beneficial exchange of value for both parties, nor does it involve aligned motivations like pairing two professionals who see the same signature on their paychecks.

At a global corporation like AXA, Pellerin noted the program now extends beyond one-on-one mentoring to include tools like LinkedIn Elevate, which facilitates the sharing and discovering of valuable information and content from “experts” within your company.

The program offers benefits that inadvertently address other corporate pain points. Most people have noticed the generation gap at large companies. One benefit of the program is the community-building aspect that allows for easier communication between these employees born generations apart.

AXA isn’t the only corporation sold on reverse mentoring. Pellerin frequently meets with other French companies looking to use AXA’s program as a benchmark for building their own initiatives. Other corporations who now have notable reverse mentoring programs include: Solvay (Chemistry), Orange (Telecommunications), Roche (Pharma), or even Danone (Food), which launched its own, back in in 2012.

Is your company considering a reverse mentoring initiative or practicing other innovative techniques that we should know about? Please comment below.

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