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Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Systems Canada in Toronto, uses video conferencing to speak with his mentor, Ioana Birleanu, a Cisco business manager based in the Netherlands. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Systems Canada in Toronto, uses video conferencing to speak with his mentor, Ioana Birleanu, a Cisco business manager based in the Netherlands. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Role reversal: Mentoring from the bottom up Add to ...

At least once a month Nitin Kawale, president of Cisco Systems Canada Co., sits down for a one-on-one mentoring session with Ioana Birleanu, a twentysomething business manager in Cisco’s offices in the Netherlands.

Mr. Kawale has years of work experience and several levels of seniority over Ms. Birleanu, but he isn't the mentor in these sessions. Instead he’s the student and protégé, learning over the past year how to use social media for internal and external communication.

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“I was a neophyte at that,” said Mr. Kawale, 51. “Now I’m blogging, doing video blogging and internal ‘dialogue cafés,’ and I’m preparing to start Tweeting.”

The two are partners in a relatively new type of mentoring where the traditional roles are reversed and junior employees take on the role of teacher to their more experienced co-workers. Pioneered just over a decade ago by former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, reverse mentoring has been embraced by a growing number of companies, including Ernst & Young, General Motors and Procter & Gamble.

Alison Konrad, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., says reverse mentoring can re-energize older employees, keep younger workers engaged and improve relationships between the different generations in the workplace.

“Senior workers can plateau and feel bored and stale, so this input of energy and ideas from a motivated younger person can be like a shot in the arm for their motivation and morale,” said Prof. Konrad. “For the junior worker, being a mentor to someone higher up gives them a lot of visibility among senior leaders in the company.”

When Mr. Welch introduced reverse mentoring at GE, his goal was to help the boomers at his company learn about new technology, in particular the Internet and e-mail. Today, companies are using reverse mentoring to encourage other types of learning, Prof. Konrad said.

For example, junior mentors can help managers understand how to motivate and retain young workers. They can also provide first-hand knowledge of a younger customer base – critical for companies aiming to tap into the youth market.

Some companies are using reverse mentoring to enhance diversity training for senior staff, Prof. Konrad said.

“Each successive generation tends to be more open and knowledgeable about diversity in society than the previous generation,” she said. “With reverse mentoring, the junior mentor can help senior leaders gain a better understanding of the issues around cultural diversity.”

Tony Ianni, a Toronto-based partner at global accounting firm Ernst & Young, said being in a reverse mentoring program has deepened his knowledge of other cultures.

Three years ago, he became the protégé of Simone Carvalho, a vice-president at Ernst & Young who was born and raised in India. Mr. Ianni said his candid conversations with Ms. Carvalho have helped him better understand how culture and religion can sometimes influence people’s actions in the workplace.

Ms. Carvalho, in turn, said Mr. Ianni has taught her a lot. “It’s been very good to understand Tony’s perspective … I use it to decide on certain things, like how aggressive I should be when making a presentation to my group.”

She said her talks with Mr. Ianni have also helped her adjust some of her own culture-based behaviour at work. For example, she said she used to have a passive approach to career-building, believing that if she performed well she could move up without necessarily articulating a desire for advancement.

“The idea was never to ask – people watch you, look at how you work and you get promoted based on what they see of you,” she said. “Whereas, in a more Western society, not only do you do a good job, you also need to set out your job expectations and not just hope somebody notices you. It was very helpful for me to learn that.”

Reverse mentors and their protégés can run into a few stumbling blocks. A big challenge, said Prof. Konrad, is persuading senior managers to embrace the role reversal and start taking advice instead of always giving it. They need to let go of their leadership role and learn the art of “followership,” she said.

They also need to suspend their judgment of the younger generation, often characterized as being less dedicated and loyal to their employer than older workers.

“Don’t expect your twentysomething mentor to have the same work ethics you had when you were in your twenties,” Prof. Konrad advised. “If you do, then you’re likely to shut them out and start coaching them on their careers, which means you’re not going to hear all the ideas they're just dying to share with you.”

Junior employees must be confident enough to instruct a superior, Prof. Konrad said, so it’s important for companies to choose people who can actually make the relationship work.

Cisco’s Mr. Kawale said it’s important for mentoring partners to be ready for change and be willing to take the time to learn. When he first became a reverse mentoring protégé, he thought, “Oh my, I don’t have time to do all these things.”

But he soon realized that learning to use social media would save him time. Today, instead of drafting memos for mass e-mailing he does video blogs or holds dialogue cafés through video technology, which takes less time and feels as though he’s having actual conversations with his employees. He has also built a strong presence on LinkedIn, where he has more than 500 connections.

“It’s not easy,” Mr. Kawale said of reverse mentoring. “But if you go in with an open mind, it will pay massive dividends.”

PREPARATION TIPS

Do some role playing for your new assignment. If you're a manager who is about to begin working with a younger mentor, practise being a follower. If you're a junior worker, give serious thought to your new role as leader.

Keep an open mind. Let go of any negative biases based on age, gender, culture or job status. Instead, think about how you can learn from these points of differences.

Do some advance homework. Learn as much as you can about your mentoring partner, including his or her working style and temperament. Do a Google search, talk to co-workers, or arrange a meeting before agreeing to be a reverse mentor partner.

But if the shoe doesn’t fit … If you're a manager who can’t stop giving directions, or a junior employee who squirms when talking to senior staff, then a traditional mentoring arrangement may suit you better.

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