Teaching up

Reverse mentoring is a great way to spread digital skills across the enterprise

Three decades into his accounting career, Stan VanderToolen is upping his tech game by learning how to use data visualization software. “You can see the gears turning,” says Tanner Woolley, a colleague who has been mentoring VanderToolen. “It’s exciting to see the lightbulb go on as he gets new ideas about how to use this technology with his clients.”

The twist? VanderToolen is a managing partner at accounting giant PwC. Woolley is a second-year tax associate who graduated recently from Brigham Young University. Last year, the two teamed up as part of a reverse mentoring initiative called Digital Fitness Personal Trainers. The program recruits younger, digitally savvy employees to teach in-demand skills to their (often senior-level) colleagues. It’s a new facet of the company’s push to boost the digital skills of its 50,000 U.S. employees.

Reverse mentorship has been a staple of leadership development since Jack Welch pioneered the concept at GE in the late 1990s. Nowadays it’s enjoying a resurgence with CIOs, who are using it to reduce critical skills gaps in IT.

While many companies embrace Welch’s concept, the label “reverse” mentor is less in vogue, as it can suggest biases toward age or seniority. Mentors in modern programs are frequently called “ninjas,” “apprentices,” or, in PwC’s case, “trainers.”

Amid fierce competition for skilled IT talent, reverse mentorship programs can help win and retain skilled workers.

Over the next three years, companies foresee major challenges finding and hiring workers proficient in machine learning, workflow automation, data analytics, cybersecurity, and other digital disciplines, according to Deloitte. To seed those skills across the enterprise, many large enterprises—including Vodafone, Aflac, Black Rock and PwC—are leaning on tech-savvy Millennial workers to teach longer-tenured colleagues new skills.

“In today’s workplace, competencies are king,” says Jason Wingard, dean of the Columbia University School of Professional Studies. “In many cases, IT skills are tailored closely to the company’s needs, so reverse mentorship from within the organization is ideal in closing the skills gap. Mentorship across generations offers benefits to both parties.”

Sarah McEneaney, digital talent leader at PwC, says she was a bit surprised by the huge interest in the program since it debuted 18 month ago. “I thought it would be really niche,” she admits.

Not so: Already 43% of partners have requested a mentor. To date, 1,400 PwC employees have been mentored by 1,100 personal trainers, each earning at least one digital badge in data analytics, data visualization, robotic process automation, and other disciplines.

Woolley acknowledges that the chance to interact with VanderToolen was a big draw. “Selfishly, that was one reason I signed up,” he says. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn and grow.”

When it comes to IT skills, the win-win of reverse mentorship is all about talent. For younger workers, it provides a path for career development, making them more likely to stay loyal to the company. Veteran employees learn new skills and get exposure to fresh ways of thinking about how emerging technologies can help achieve business objectives.

Tapping hidden talent pools

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to reverse mentoring programs. Telecom giant Vodafone has a workforce of more than 100,000. Nearly half of them are Millennials, according to a recent report by the Digital Workplace Group. As part of its strategy to expand tech skills, Vodafone recruits “digital ninjas” in each office who make themselves available to support older employees in their daily use of technology on an informal, ad hoc basis.

At insurance company Aflac, by contrast, CIO Julia Davis created a more formal two-year program in which “apprentices”—mostly recent college graduates—mentor senior IT staff, whose average age is 48. Every few months the apprentices move on to a new team, exposing them to all facets of the company’s IT operations and allowing them to forge multiple relationships.

In other instances, managers use reverse mentoring to lock in expertise with critical software applications. According to Wingard, asset management firm BlackRock’s reverse-mentor program is tied to teaching the intricacies of the company’s proprietary investment software.

PwC’s program is designed to be a bit more free-form. “We give guardrails of what we would suggest is effective, but we don’t monitor it down to the minute,” says McEneaney. “It’s meant to evolve organically, like a natural mentoring relationship.”

For VanderToolen and Woolley, training began with sessions every three weeks, focused on data analytics tools. From there they moved on to data visualization and automation basics. Woolley also sends his mentee a weekly newsletter with links about technology innovations relevant to client work, along with examples of how other internal PwC teams are using tech inventively.

“It’s been really fun because I can show him, ‘hey, here’s this great automation that a team over in Boston is using,’” says Woolley. The experience, adds VanderToolen, has helped him to engage more effectively with his own team.

“Digital skills are central to our firm’s strategy and it’s important to me to show our staff how serious we are about it,” he says. “Being matched with Tanner was just what I needed—it helped me better appreciate the things my staff are learning about and doing.”

Finding (and keeping) IT talent

Amid fierce competition for skilled IT talent, reverse mentorship programs can also help win and retain skilled workers. Nearly 90% of Millennials say that avenues for career training and development are a key factor in deciding whether to stay in their current position, according to a survey by Instructure, an employee development firm.

Three years after financial services firm Pershing launched a reverse-mentor program, it can boast a retention rate of 96% for Millennial participants. For prospective workers, meanwhile, the prospect of engaging directly with senior managers can be a powerful recruitment tool.

“Reverse mentorship programs often produce success stories that can be shared on company websites and social media,” says Wingard. “When Millennials and Gen Zs are researching prospective employers, these stories can show a company’s commitment to developing its people, so they may be more inclined to apply for a job.”

Woolley, for one, is happy to evangelize for the program both within PwC and to prospective applicants. “Even though I’m just an associate, I’m not sure I would have been given the same opportunity at another firm,” he says.

And thanks to the program, Woolley has also learned how to teach, a skill that should serve him well in the labor force of the future.


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