The demographic diversity issue

Recently I frequented a large CIO-gathering where most speakers were in my demographic group (usually above 40, suits, a little grayish). They all mentioned working with Millennials in their storyline and how good or difficult that was. When I looked around I found that we still have a gender diversity issue in technology. Above 95 percent of the attendants was male. But more importantly around the topic of this blog I also experienced a demographic diversity issue around millennials. The number of millennials in the room belonging to the target audience (CIO or senior IT leader) were easy to count in a total group of 650 people.

If you would ask a CXO what he could learn a millennial he would probably frown. After a short pause he will say that that would probably not work as they are impatient, know it all and have left the company before the learning will have had some effect. The millennial on the other hand would probably probably respond instantly. He or she would say that he could learn from the CXO from his experience. Nevertheless that experience will also come with the years and that acting like a dinosaur is not the future of work (as we all know what happened to the dinosaur).

But is this gap really that big? I do not think so and sometimes maybe we are too much amplifying it. And more importantly could the two not learn from each other in a mentoring relationship?

The great art of mentoring for CXO’s and millennials

Mentorship is a very valuable learning process. It goes back more than hundreds of years ago when people were passing on craftsmanship on the job. The reason we use “mentorship” (and not teacher) is because mentorship implies a rational and emotional investment, as it is about the what, the how and the why.

Whenever we discuss mentorship, we immediately have a mental image where the structure follows the organization chart of a company. The mentor is someone older and more “experienced”, with the person being mentored is younger and less experienced. Age tends to be the most common denominator because age tends to imply experience and lessons learned.

Companies in all industries have formal and informal programs designed to hone their talent and sharpen their competitive edge. However, the technology revolution has created an ironic twist to traditional mentoring. Today, it’s common for a young, entry-level worker to have a better understanding of technology or some aspect of the operation than his manager.

A demographic development further strengthens that as by 2020 millennials will be half of the workforce. These millennials are a generation that have grown up with a lot of technology. As they are very tech savvy and digitally equipped, mentoring is an effective way to pass on experience and knowledge within an organization.

Reverse mentoring

Contrary to the traditional mentoring concept there is a concept called “reverse mentoring”. With reversed mentoring more seasoned workers pair with younger ones to educate one another on how business work, new ways of thinking and how technology can improve and amplify them.

For over a decade this so called reverse mentoring has been used to help senior executives get up to speed on evolving technology. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, popularized reverse mentoring in 1999. In that year he required 500 of his top executives to pair up with junior associates for the purpose of learning how to use the internet.

Today, many organizations like Cisco and HP have adopted reverse mentoring enthusiastically and set up formalized programs to ensure best practices and maximize success.


The true benefits

Not only is the practice of pairing millennials with seasoned, high-level leaders a real benefit in terms of helping older executives bridge the gap techwise, it can also benefit a company’s business strategy. With 75% of employees to be millennials by 2030 they will be the fastest growing generation in the workplace. Millennials’ values and beliefs will influence business enormously in the coming years.

Not only are these young individuals the best candidates for mentoring CEOs in the latest tech. They are also best-suited to help create the business strategies that will maximize a company’s relevance and potential in the digital age of tomorrow. Next to that they constitute an important part of the target customer group for companies. Consequently who can better decide what products, sales and marketing fits them best than millennials.

So far so good…. But there is one but. This only works if both are willing to open up, treat each other on the same level as someone to respect and learn from and are willing to invest the time. If the executive sees his younger colleague as the helpdesk on technical problems this will soon lead to disentanglement. If the younger colleague is not willing to fully trust what is being said is part of the mentoring relationship eventually both will be “too busy” to find another date for their conversation.

Who dares?

The benefits of reverse mentoring, when done in the proper way, are clear:

  1. CXO’s and leaders get better access to what technology developments could benefit their businesses. Reverse mentoring offers different, fresh, and/or younger perspectives.
  2. CXO’s and leaders build a better understanding of a growing target group for their products and services
  3. Reverse mentoring helps to engage and retain younger talent. It creates a two-way conversation. This allows managers to learn what workplace conditions younger employees seek to advance themselves in along with the interests of the company.
  4. Seasoned executives mentor millennials and can teach them skills they learned through experience. In this way the millennial prepares for taking up more senior roles in the organization
  5. Polarization and misunderstandings between senior leaders and millennials will reduce or even dissolve. Reverse mentoring “shrinks” big organizations and transcends boundaries that one would normally not cross.

So this is a great way for more seasoned managers and millennials to progress in their careers. They build a better  understanding of the markets, technology, leadership and people in the company. If a reverse mentoring program does not exist, you can wait for your HR department to formalize this in a program. But as with all new initiatives maybe it is better to Think Big, Start Small and Scale Fast. So what do you do if your company does not have a reverse mentoring program? I would just reach out to a colleague and start going. Big chance others will follow you and it will end up in a formalized program.

CIAO, Carlo


Carlo Schreurs is business group CIO and digital officer, trendviewer and speaker. He also regularly writes on digital and technology, the future of work and leadership in the digital age. Through short 5 minute blogs he provides busy people with key insights with a twist. You can follow Carlo on Twitter and Facebook.

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