How Reverse Mentoring Can Disrupt C-Suite Thinking (And Deliver Confidence In The Future)
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When we launched the CEOx1Day future leadership development program in the UAE three years ago, the over-riding aim was highly focused: to pair aspiring entrepreneurial students with some of the country’s top CEOs, so that they can discover what it takes to run a business. It was seen, if you like, as a hands-on reality check for that often-maligned cadre called millennials.
Millennials have often been seen as restless roamers over the past few years– even earning the dubious mantle of “snowflakes” for their unconventional approach to life. While the CEOx1Day program is the chance for some to set the record straight, the scheme delivered an unexpected benefit: a kind of “trading places” scenario emerged, as CEO mentors also become students.
CEOx1Day got off to a great start this year with the backing of six of the country’s universities, and 16 CEOs from some of its biggest business names including Alabbar Enterprises, Aster DM HealthCare, Atkins, Averda, Colgate-Palmolive, Dubai Airports, Dubai Opera, Dyson, Ferrero, Jaguar Land Rover MENA, Nestle Middle East, NMC Healthcare, Refinitiv, Siemens Middle East and Zurich International Life.
The scheme successfully matches CEOs with carefully-selected third and fourth year students from participating universities, which this year, have included Abu Dhabi University, American University of Sharjah, Heriot Watt University Dubai, Middlesex University in Dubai, New York University Abu Dhabi and the University of Wollongong in Dubai. The students who make it through the rigorous selection process are then invited to shadow key business leaders for a full working day or longer, to absorb a behind-the-scenes understanding of what it takes to get to, and stay, at the top.
Some CEOs, however, spotted the scheme’s additional reverse mentoring potential. Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airport’s CEO, expanded CEOx1Day into a week-long exercise with one lucky student, who got the chance to shadow him for a full working week. Griffith’s comments from the CEOx1Day closing event, held last November, was that he finished the week full of confidence that today’s students are indeed capable of shaping up to be the region’s future business leaders.
Our CEOx1Day project offers CEOs a fresh perspective, where young minds offer their unjaded thoughts and opinions to those in positions of leadership. Some CEOs have commented that the program reminds them of what it was like to start out in the world of business for the first time again, and of the opportunities and paths that are available when first starting out.
The CEOx1Day experience also offers the opportunity to get into the mindset of the leaders of the future, and for companies and CEOs to have a greater understanding for what motivates young professionals. To understand how millennials can be managed effectively requires input from young people, and CEOx1Day provides exactly that. Great changes have been happening to businesses in recent years, many of which are better suited to millennials, as they are the generation causing these movements. Retaining them within a company for a long period is unlikely, unless businesses adapt to their dreams and aspirations. Gone are the days where becoming a CEO could take up to 20–30 years, by proving your loyalty and capability to one or two companies.
A scene from an earlier edition of CEOx1Day.
One of the statements we hear on a regular basis from the undergraduates taking part in this project, is that they want to become a CEO, an entrepreneur, or own their own company in 5-10 years. In order to accomplish this, millennials are likely to move often and regularly to advance their careers, experience new parts of a business, and gain new skills, to help them understand how a business works as a whole. This accelerated career growth requires companies to become more flexible, and be willing to embrace the need for moving to the next level at a faster rate.
CEOx1Day offers companies these insights, by having millennials interact with c-suite executives and senior leaders, offering their thoughts and opinions so that CEOs have a head start on how their business and workforce will change in the next few years. Our participating CEOs from previous years have benefitted from the shadowing experience, some remarking that it was wonderful to have a fresh pair of eyes next to them.
Last November, we held our annual CEOx1Day evening reception to celebrate the end of another successful project, and we heard from three of the CEOs who took part as guest speakers about their experience of the program so far. We’re delighted that Paul Griffiths, Chief Executive Officer of Dubai Airports, Guido Ferralasco, Managing Director of Ferrero and Bruce Robertson, Managing Director of Jaguar Land Rover MENA, were caught on camera, and their fantastic comments can be viewed on our website and YouTube as they spoke candidly about their experiences.
Paul Griffiths, who was first to speak at the event, said, “I think sometimes the best way to learn is to get someone who can ask those very pointed questions about what it’s like, why are you doing this, why did that person say that, why is it not like this? I have to say, I was quite exhausted after the end of the week, because the line of questioning was so intelligent, so robust, and quite incredible.” He later encouraged other CEOs to take part in our CEOx1Day experience, saying, “It was just the most brilliant week, so I can’t recommend the program more highly.”
Guido Ferralasco, Managing Director of Italian luxury chocolate producer Ferrero, who also attended the event has already committed to the scheme for his third year in a row, after finding that it presents brilliant opportunities for both the student and the mentor. “You can make it useful for your organization,” he said. “The people coming in are millennials, they look at your company from a totally different point of view- it can be useful, because you have the perspective of somebody that represents incidentally 50% of the population in the region below 30 years old.”
Among other key takeaways for participating CEOs was the realization that millennials expect promotion to be based on merit, not age or length of service. Millennials are eager to advance, so companies often learn that they need to streamline their processes to enable them to reach their potential faster. They also discover that the millennials appreciate agile organizations, those prepared to manage differently, and embrace change where needed. At the CEOx1Day reception, Bruce Robertson commented. “I would encourage anyone out there who wants to get involved in the program to think about what you want to get out of it, think about what can the student get out of it, and then engage, and I have to say that, we’ll be in again next year, as this is really beneficial.”
In the CEOx1Day program, the matching of successful and aspiring students is very much a win-win. While students get to deep dive into the different ins and outs of a business, CEOs gain future-proofing insight into the mindset of the next generation of their workforce. In bringing new perspectives to both the established and the up-and-coming, CEOx1Day disrupts thinking patterns to unlock business and personal potential. And for some CEOs, the spotting of future talent is an added bonus. After all, there was one student who was offered the opportunity to join Dubai Airports after a successful and intriguing shadowing experience. The question now is: will she one day be the CEO sitting in her mentor’s chair?