When junior staff help the boss keep up

Sachse Construction's Mr Jim Jehle, 66, a senior project manager, with his mentor, Ms Nicole Mancino, 27, director of marketing, at their office in Detroit.
Sachse Construction's Mr Jim Jehle, 66, a senior project manager, with his mentor, Ms Nicole Mancino, 27, director of marketing, at their office in Detroit.PHOTO: NYTIMES

In a bid to grapple with market trends, younger workers are being pulled in to mentor senior executives

NEW YORK •Junior office workers once had a fairly predictable set of daily tasks. Write the sales memo. Build the PowerPoint presentation. Even make the coffee.

Now, many young professionals have a new mandate: Drag the boss into the 21st century.

While businesses chase market trends and grapple with a fastmoving future, millennial mentors, as many companies call them, have emerged as a hot accessory for executives. Young workers, some just out of college, are being pulled into formal corporate programmes to give advice to the top ranks of their companies.

Millennial mentorship programmes represent a formalised version of the advice junior workers have been giving their older colleagues for ages.

Some executives want the views of young people on catering to new markets and developing new products, while others seek glorified tech support - Snapchat 101, Twitter tutorials and emoji lessons.

Companies such as global payments firm Mastercard, tech giant Cisco Systems and food processing business Mars have experimented with these mentoring schemes.

Ms Inga Beale, 54, chief executive of insurance marketplace Lloyd's Of London, has said that her junior mentor, who is 19, has a "totally different perspective" and leaves her "inspired".

Ms Melanie Whelan, 40, chief executive of fitness company SoulCycle, holds monthly meetings with her younger mentor, whom she has credited with helping her get "hip with what the kids are doing these days".

It is like reconnecting with your lost youth, said Mr David Watson, 38, a managing director at Deutsche Bank who has been mentored by Mr Fernando Hernandez, 29, an engineer in the bank's global markets technology division.

He credited Mr Hernandez with good tips for retaining young employees, such as giving them more flexible work-from-home arrangements, and with helping him spot trends in the financial tech industry.

It was perhaps inevitable that older executives would turn to their young employees for advice.

As technology has changed the way businesses run, it has also put power in the hands of digital natives and left older, less tech-savvy executives angling for ways to keep up.

Reverse mentoring - another name firms give to younger people training older workers - is not a new concept. Mr Jack Welch, while chief executive of General Electric in the 1990s, required 500 of his top managers to pair up with junior workers to learn to use the Internet.

But executives are especially eager to learn from millennials, whose dominance in Silicon Valley has given older workers a fear of obsolescence.

An entire cottage industry now peddles advice to youth-obsessed executives, with books such as Understanding Millennials and events such as Millennial Week - to "promote and present ideas reflecting the impact of Generation Y on culture and society".

Millennial consultants now advise companies such as beauty conglomerate Estee Lauder and network giant HBO, charging as much as US$20,000 (S$27,000) an hour to give executives advice on marketing their products to young people.

Compared with the prospect of shelling out thousands of dollars for one of those outside consultants, many executives prefer the alternative of using the young people on their payroll.

"It's a pretty smart thing for them to do," said Malcolm Harris, author of Kids These Days, a forthcoming book about millennials and the economy. "If you can't get a 25-year-old to run your company, you can at least tell people your CEO is talking to 25-year-olds."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'When junior staff help the boss keep up'. Print Edition | Subscribe