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Edelman general manager Kim Peacock says it’s important for managers to continually learn from their younger staff: ‘You need to ask the dumb questions.’

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Kim Peacock was only a few weeks into her general manager's job at Edelman public relations in Vancouver when she noticed that an employee had retweeted one of her Twitter posts with an unfamiliar #FF hashtag.

Having just arrived from a management position at social media company HootSuite Media Inc., Ms. Peacock was no stranger to tech terms, but this one was new, even to her. Rather than ignore the tweet or pretend to know what it meant, she walked over to a group of younger staff to find the answer.

They told her it stood for "Follow Friday" or "Friday Favourite" – a way for one Twitter user to recommend another user to their friends. While it was far from a crucial business problem that needed solving, Ms. Peacock believes it's important for managers to continually be learning from their younger staff.

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"You need to ask the dumb questions," Ms. Peacock says. "If you pretend you know something you don't, or try to use language you're not comfortable with … that's how you lose respect. You gain respect from your staff by showing that you're willing to learn from them."

It's a problem that many managers face: How to lead when many of their younger employees know more than they do, especially when it comes to the new technology that is driving most businesses today. The days when managers shouted orders at younger underlings are being replaced by junior staff teaching their bosses how to operate their new iPhones and post messages on Twitter – both of which can be important parts of running a business.

This workplace shift is turning managers into students and forcing them to sharpen their leadership skills to better engage employees who, in some cases, have more practical job skills needed for the company to compete.

"With leadership, it's not your job to be the smartest person in the room," Ms. Peacock says. "Your job is to hire the right people and to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and harness that energy."

Robert MacGregor, a lawyer turned entrepreneur, relied on a team of technical experts to help build his company, nTrust, an online money transfer service.

He hired a team of people with knowledge in areas where he had absolutely no expertise – a move he said can't be made easily without humility.

"As a leader, you are inevitability going to work with people who are smarter than you," Mr. MacGregor says. "It's not only a good thing, in a vast majority of cases, it is an absolutely necessary condition of success."

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Today, nTrust has a team of 18 staff in Vancouver and eight in Manila, and Mr. MacGregor says his knowledge of information technology is increasing. That said, he has no plans to become a tech expert like many of his employees.

"There's a joke in my office that I'm not a micromanager, but I'm microinterested," he says. "You don't need to know every single granular aspect of their job, but you need to know enough to be able to ask intelligent questions, to challenge and probe, and help them express the ideas. … My company would be in dire straights if I didn't do that."

At Cisco Systems Canada, president Nitin Kawale started a reverse mentoring program in 2010 between younger staff and senior managers to spur two-way sharing of knowledge across the company.

Mr. Kawale shared with his twentysomething mentor some of the problems senior management deal with daily. She took that information and taught him how to maximize his use of technology and better communicate through various types of social media.

"I fundamentally changed the way I work," Mr. Kawale says. "We are seeing this multigenerational flow of ideas back and forth. … They have helped us redefine business practices."

Mr. Kawale said the challenge is encouraging older workers to open up to younger ones about their technological shortcomings, and to embrace change and constantly evolving new technology.

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"These young kids, they can be intimidating. They pull out their devices and click, click, click, next thing you know all sorts of neat things are happening," he says.

On the flip side, Mr. Kawale says the younger generation is also developing an appreciation of how older workers operate.

"Young people are starting to realize maybe the older people aren't as dumb as they might think," he says.

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