Have You Been Reverse-Mentored by a Millennial Lately?
By Bask Iyer, CIO, VMware
From sending quick messages to friends, to making payments at Starbucks, to getting turn-by-turn voice-guided navigation to a restaurant, to sharing videos with family members in another part of the world—smartphones do it all. These handheld engineering wonders offer so much convenience that, as we all know, it’s hard to go for even an hour without reaching for one.
But when we compare the real world to the more focused world of enterprise IT, mobile hasn’t impacted our business processes nearly as radically. At least not yet. And one of the major reasons behind this, I believe, is the ongoing disconnect between senior management and Millennials.
Let me explain.
Bridging the Great Divide
When I started in IT many moons ago, a vast majority of workers didn’t know how to use a computer. So it was challenging to push computer technology into some organizations. One even had to work hard to justify email because management was happy with the paper-based communication system they’d been using for years. It took quite a while before people realized the true potential of computers, but now we can’t imagine running a business without one.
Today, we’re experiencing a similar moment, although, it doesn’t seem as stark: those who hold the most power within an organization tend to be concerned about their desktop computers and networks, and mostly think of mobile as a consumer-facing tool. As I’ve written before, thinking mobile-first doesn’t come naturally to most enterprises. If anything, creating mobile versions of corporate apps for use by employees is generally considered a nice-to-have add-on, a semi-useful perk of a well-rounded BYOD policy. If you can log in through an HR app to request a sick day from the comfort of your bed, using just your smartphone, that’s often as good as it gets.
Enterprise mobility is rarely seen as the business-process innovation field that it could be—and, to the Millennial mind, should be. And so we’re left with a great divide: in our personal lives, smartphones work such wonders that we wouldn’t dare leave home without them, but in our large corporate enterprises, the apps we engage with are generally best used on a desktop.
However, mobility is just one example, and there are plenty of other dimensions where the enterprise world moves glacially because organizational inertia is strong and those in charge don’t see eye to eye with the kids.
But even us more experienced dogs can learn new tricks if we try.
The Power of Reverse Mentoring
If you want to be an innovative, continually evolving CIO or CTO and not just another staid C-suite suit, there is only one obvious and easy path forward. It’s called reverse mentoring. And I can tell you from personal experience, it works.
About 15 years ago, Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, popularized the concept of reverse mentoring when he asked about 500 of his execs to learn how to use the Internet from the younger GE employees. Mr. Welch himself learned how to surf the web from one of his young employees who was in her twenties.
When I would mentor young people, I began to notice that I’d usually learn a lot more from them than they’d learn from me. At least, that’s how it felt at times, and as I’ve learned to seek out younger employees to see what they’re working on and how they’re approaching certain problems, I’ve found that they often do take a different approach.
Just watch a Millennial using their smartphone or smartwatch, and then, if you’re over 40, watch yourself doing the same. The difference is real, natural, and purely generational—human beings working together in the same organization but operating on two different technological planes.
A Little Humility Goes a Long Way
The old hierarchical dichotomy between teacher and student, or older mentor and younger mentee, worked well in a world where changed happened slowly, and the knowledge of one generation could reasonably be transferred to the benefit of the next, like a Vedic sage or Zen master transmitting perennial wisdom through the ages. But that just isn’t the case anymore—certainly not in IT. Top-down knowledge transfer doesn’t work that reliably in the dynamic, rapidly fluctuating world of technology where Moore’s Law still reigns supreme.
Instead, we need to embrace a more fluid approach to management and knowledge transfer, where knowledge is free to flow up and down and side to side, organically. This requires, above all else, humility on the part of a manager, and hopefully also on the part of the young employee who would dare to reverse-mentor their elder colleague.
As experienced, authoritative IT professionals, we need to be willing to heed Yoda’s advice to Luke and unlearn what we have learned. At least, we need to be willing to suspend our habitual ways long enough to let new information in, opening ourselves up to see how young minds are approaching old problems in fresh and unexpected ways. We more, ah, “mature” folks will always have more professional experience and, in most cases, perspective than our younger peers, so they’ll hopefully benefit from engaging with us too.
Diversity Breeds Novelty
But this goes beyond a one-on-one situation. The idea of reverse mentoring needs to become a defining feature of any corporate culture that wants to stay innovative, forging a healthy blend of ages and experience levels in any department and ensuring that there is no shortage of collaborative working relationships where knowledge and wisdom can be freely shared.
Finally, and crucially, don’t limit yourself to learning from mentees of the same gender or same professional background as yours! It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, since Silicon Valley seems to be slow to get this particular message: The greater the variety of people and insights you expose yourself to, the more you’re likely to learn.