One of the most valuable things Judy Kirpich has learned is that some of the best ideas come from people who were barely born when she started in marketing 23 years ago. "I routinely get technology information from younger employees who have grown up on computers," says the 49-year-old CEO and co-founder of Grafik Marketing Communications Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia.
What Kirpich is doing is reverse mentoring--matching younger employees who know a lot about the Internet, wireless commerce or some other field with senior managers who aren't so up on the latest digital domains. Joining youthful insight with elder influence can have long-lasting benefits. Kirpich says she was cool to technology in the 1980s, but invested in computers at the urging of the younger set in her company. "If I hadn't listened to the younger people," says Kirpich, "we'd be out of business."
Reverse mentoring has probably been around forever, but it first became a mainstream idea a few years ago when General Electric's then-CEO, Jack Welch, ordered several hundred of his top managers to hook up with younger employees to learn about the Internet. Since then, reverse mentoring has been seen as useful for managing intergenerational differences at work, understanding younger consumers and generally fishing around for new ideas.
Keys to successful reverse mentoring include training the mentor to be patient and restricting his or her advice to the relevant topic, says Jerry Wind, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who oversees a reverse mentoring program matching entrepreneurs and other executives with MBA student mentors. Privacy and confidentiality are also important for CEOs who don't wish to be seen as depending on tips from from employees with less experience. Partially for that reason, Wind says mentors should come from outside the organization. Using outsiders also avoids issues with other employees who see a junior worker getting special access to the executive suite.
For Kirpich, reverse mentoring has both informal and formal aspects. She gets information about the latest software and systems by simply unceremoniously asking questions of younger staffers she thinks might know the answer. She also encourages and receives unsolicited tips. The formal, public component involves inviting younger employees to stage presentations for all members of the company, at which they can pass on design ideas, technological innovations or other information.
But reverse mentoring isn't always especially useful. For example, it can't help cope with a recession, Kirpich notes, because younger employers haven't experienced one. She also doesn't plan to seek advice on client presentations, selling, finance or long-term strategy from her younger workers.
Reverse mentoring is probably unappreciated by most entrepreneurs, says Matt Starcevich, a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, executive coach and mentoring trainer. Starcevich found little reverse mentoring occurring when he conducted an online survey on the topic last year. One reason may be that people do it without officially naming it "mentoring," but Starcevich also suspects that many reverse mentoring initiatives withered because they lacked clear goals and adequate structure. "The idea is good, but it needs help," he says.
For her part, Kirpich sees reverse mentoring as permanently embedded in the way Grafik does business. She fears, however, that entrepreneurs may be biased against taking advice from twentysomething tech experts as part of a backlash from the bursting dotcom bubble. "That would be a tremendous harm," she says, "if people are so jaded by the dotcom experience that they cut out that younger voice."