Tapping millennials' knowledge of technology, social media

Companies turning to 'reverse mentoring'

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Minneapolis Star Tribune

In companies across the nation, “reverse mentoring” is taking root as baby boomer leaders seek out millennials to help them understand the latest in technology, social media and the fast-changing marketplace.

“It’s not that older generations aren’t using technology — of course they’re texting and on Facebook,” said Debra Arbit, CEO of workplace consultant BridgeWorks. “But the fact that I got my first iPhone when I was a teenager is a very different thing than my mom, who learned how to text when she was 54.”

Boomer bosses also want to hang on to these younger workers, whose sense of work-life balance and loyalty do not match up with their own.

Health care giant UnitedHealth Group sees value in turning the tables. The company, with headquarters in suburban Minneapolis, rolled out a reverse mentoring program this summer that paired eight senior executives in its insurance division with eight millennials seen as “emerging leaders.” The average age gap is 25 years.

“For many of our leaders — outstanding thought leaders in their own right — their connection to the millennial generation is largely through their parenting skills,” said Pete Church, vice president of human capital at UnitedHealthcare. “This becomes a fundamentally different kind of experience.”

UnitedHealth’s insurance business is perceived as less innovative than its fast-growing health IT division, Optum. A reverse mentoring program could help executives see the business with fresh eyes but also shape a workplace that reflects the contrasting needs of the next generation.

“We’re switching roles because we have this business problem we’re trying to solve,” Church said.

Millennials recently overtook baby boomers as the largest generation at work, and by 2020 they’ll be more than half of the nation’s workforce. Companies are taking a renewed interest in reverse mentorship as a business strategy.

In 2009, Amanda Daeges was tapped to join a group of millennials inside U.S. Bank in Minneapolis known as the “Dynamic Dozen.” The initiative draws workers in their 20s and 30s from across the company to tackle a yearlong project aimed at serving millennial customers and younger employees.

Was it stressful? “Of course!” said Daeges, 37 and a vice president in the Minneapolis-based bank’s legal department. “But they were very interested, and I felt like our opinion was valued and considered by them.

“When we finished our presentation, one senior leader said, ‘That’s so simple. Why aren’t we doing this?’ And we were just trying to contain the grins on our faces.”

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