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By all accounts, Miles Davis was a genius at mentoring. He brought a stream of jazz greats into his orbit, guiding them, yet gave precious few words of advice.

Once onstage, he leaned over to Herbie Hancock and muttered, "Don't play the butter notes." Mr. Hancock puzzled over this, but finally took it to mean to cut the fat, cut out the extraneous bits, stick to the essence of the music. The pianist said it changed his playing forever, for the better, even if he later learned that he may have misheard Miles, mistaking "butter notes" for "bottom notes." The result was the same.

But possibly the best line of advice any human-resources manager should remember was when Mr. Davis told Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, "You listen, and then you play."

This is exactly what human resources vice-president Dave Moncur tries to nurture at PepsiCo Foods Canada.

Just as a percussionist shouldn't simply fill in gaps in the music with the squeak of a cuica or the thump of congas, it means truly listening to the music and reacting to what it's actually saying. Crucially, it also means that Mr. Davis as the mentor had to listen just as closely to the percussionist and react to his playing.

It's an emphasis on a real, constructive interaction rather than on formal mentoring processes. PepsiCo has deliberately backed away from formal structures of mentoring and "reverse-mentoring," a newer variant in which junior employees teach senior staff new tricks.

"When you have very formal mentoring programs, you force connections. I'm not sure you get as much value as you do when there's an informal connection, when someone has met someone they respect and trust, and they create this natural relationship," Mr. Moncur said.

To do this, PepsiCo uses employee resource groups, which are basically focus groups where the focus is on the employees themselves. Essentially, it's a rethinking of reverse-mentoring, with the younger employees becoming the knowledge resource.

The groups typically break down along demographic and gender lines. There's the Women's Inclusion Network, the PepsiCo Asian Network, and Equal (which represents LGBTQ issues), among various other groups. Each has members who organize group meetings, yet anyone in the company can attend.

"It's really focused on building awareness [for the group] they represent. Educating internally," Mr. Moncur said. It's not just a reverse-mentoring platform for different demographic groups to have their say. It's also about using those groups as a way for PepsiCo managers to better understand the potential market among different, younger demographics for PepsiCo products, Mr. Moncur said.

"We try to pick their brains as often as we can, whether it's about a business initiative or about a product. It's about trying to drive the business opportunity, not just the differences of the group," he noted.

This looser approach to reverse-mentoring can also be a key tool for scouting talent. It may allow potentially more junior voices to percolate up and get noticed than with more formalized reverse-mentoring.

"Leadership knows that if they're not meeting with people from the next generation, the leaders will be poor managers. They won't know what kind of talent actually exists, and they'll likely have underutilized talent sitting around," said Dave Wilkin, founder of Ten Thousand Coffees, which is a service that helps pair junior and senior employees through an app. The idea is for the pair to meet casually over coffee to discuss their careers or new initiatives.

But in introducing new employee groups or mentoring apps, there needs to be some personal benefit for employees, otherwise this can all just feel like a chore. "As you get larger, there needs to be that ownership level at the more junior side too, in order to ignite those conversations," said Mia Pearson, co-founder of the marketing and branding company North Strategic, who has spoken widely on tapping the ideas of young workers and interns.

With an old-fashioned, formalized mentoring approach, "I don't find that's where the greatest work happens. The greatest work happens where we're having a great conversation," she said.

That's not to say that all formal mentoring is dead and gone. Leona McCharles, vice-president of global recruitment at Royal Bank of Canada, noted that although the bank also uses informal approaches such as Ten Thousand Coffees, it still has a number of longer-term formal programs, but with a twist.

"We look at mentoring a little bit differently, because we're focusing on how we can use technology to challenge or disrupt the idea of mentoring to get to the right outcomes that we are looking for," she said. This can mean using data on employees' talents and goals to make stronger mentoring matches.

"It allows you to think differently about mentoring to focus on skills and capabilities that individuals want to grow," she said. In other words, it's yet another new approach to mentoring, one more centred around talent and skill sets, with targeted outcomes, Ms. McCharles noted.

One aspect that hasn't changed, though, is the need for trust and psychological safety, especially in reverse-mentoring arrangements and internships, said Nouman Ashraf, assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. A younger employee must feel safe enough to speak up. He or she must be allowed to question the norms, to suggest new things, "to not have to self-sensor," Dr. Ashraf said.

"Think about this for a second. People who are new to an organization have an advantage over the existing ranks of workers. And that advantage is that they can ask questions about organizational routines. They ask, Why? To what end? How come?" he said.

And to harness that level of curiosity, there needs to be honest feedback to make it all feel worthwhile, Dr. Ashraf added.

For the record, though, Miles Davis wasn't so good at giving feedback. Maybe it was to keep things informal, maybe to give the other musicians freedom. Maybe it was to keep them on their toes.

At the end of one famed recording session (for In A Silent Way in February, 1969), guitarist John McLaughlin went over to Herbie Hancock. Was what they just played any good? Miles, the constant experimenter both in his role as bandleader and mentor, had given the guitarist no indication whether he liked the playing or not.

Mr. Hancock just looked him and smiled. "John," he said, "welcome to a Miles Davis session."

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