Is Reverse Mentoring a Lever for Digital Transformation?

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

When 29-year-old Ewa Sulima, an HR executive at French insurance giant Axa, began mentoring her company’s group CFO in July 2015, she didn’t expect a traditional mentor-mentee relationship.

It began with Sulima visiting Gerald Harlin’s office for about an hour every month to share her “daily digital habits” and to show him, as she described it, “how to use digital services to increase productivity at work as well as in personal life.”

During her time as a mentor, while Sulima learned a lot about the daily jobs of various members of the C-suite (she came from a Digital HR Project Management background), she wasn’t the principle learner in this relationship.

“The monthly exchange was a great way to, step-by-step, extend [my] view of the digital world,” Harlin, who later went on to become deputy CEO, explained. “It [was] a real exchange where I explained what I knew, or didn’t, and my mentor proposed different ideas, working by iteration to ensure I [got] an extensive view of the different subjects we went through.”

All-in-all, Sulima reported, “It was definitely a win-win.”

Mentoring Turned on its Head

Axa set up this type of reverse mentoring program, where younger digitally-native employees teach seasoned executives about digital technologies, in 2015 to spread a digital mindset across the organization.

“We built this program to familiarize upper management with [new] technologies,” Karima Silvent, global head of HR for Axa, explained. “When they get first-hand experience with digital tools, they get a better understanding of the behaviors of digitally savvy people—employees as well as customers.”

For younger employees like Surima, who was a part of the program since its inception, the reverse mentoring program has been a chance to begin a rapport with mentees (their seniors) while learning about the business and wider industry practices at large. What started as a pilot project three years ago has now rolled out to nearly 1,500 Axa employees across 28 countries.

“We are very happy with the feedback,” Silvent said.

“Our surveys show that 97 percent of the mentors and mentees would recommend the program and say that it has changed their relationship with digital [technology.]”

-Karima Silvent, global head of HR for Axa

A leader in reverse mentoring in the 21st century, Axa is neither the first nor the only company to flip the mentorship model on its head.

New Tech, New Teachers

The concept of a reverse mentorship program was first popularized by Jack Welch during his tenure as CEO of GE. In 1999, Welch came across the idea of junior-level employees mentoring senior corporation leaders and, within 48 hours, he’d launched a formal program pairing 500 senior leaders with younger employees to learn about emerging digital technologies. (At the time, the focus was largely on the mysterious ways of the Internet.)

“We tipped the organization upside down,” he explained. “We now have the youngest and brightest teaching the oldest.”

Today, these programs encompass much more than internet tutorials. A growing number of companies like Roche, Burson Masteller, and Cisco are pairing younger executives with experienced business leaders to break people out of their decades-old traditional habits and thrive amidst rapid technological change.

For these organizations, reverse mentoring is not a one-time process to teach people a single action, such as how to tweet. Instead, it is an opportunity to bring generations together and put seasoned senior leaders in the shoes of digitally savvy younger customers.

“In most companies, we have a few generations of people working together,” Silvent said. “It’s a great way to break down the barriers and introduce different generations to each others’ mindsets.”

According to Silvent, part of the success of the program is due to buy-in from top management. “It’s important to ensure young managers know what their team members are doing and understand that the program enjoys support from [top] leadership,” she explained. “We’ve [done] our best to communicate across the organization that the time mentors and mentees invest will be well worth it.”

While Silvent’s personal participation as a mentee ended in 2016, Axa’s program is still very much alive. To this day it has inspired Silvent and other former participants to continue meeting their young mentors over lunch or coffee to have lively tech and leadership discussions. This continued relationship, Silvent stressed, is perhaps equally important as the program itself. “To spread digital knowledge and a digital mindset, we need to build bridges between people who live in different ecosystems.”

A Dose of Bravery—and Humility

Of course, teaching your boss or the highest-ranking employee at a company can come with its fair share of pressure.

“When you are mentoring your deputy CEO, you’d better be good,” Silvent laughed, as she recalled how they carefully selected relevant content and coached young mentors who put in hours to prepare and practice for their reverse mentoring sessions. The same thing goes for the humility required from the senior employee.

“Now, imagine you’re a senior leader,” she added. “When a young person walks into your room, it’s not easy to acknowledge that you don’t have a clue about a digital tool.”

But despite initial anxiety, she said, both mentors and mentees have been open to the program. “We found most people are very excited to teach as well as learn.”