Leaders who follow

Shrewd managers are getting their junior colleagues to coach them in social media — not only for its value as a business tool, but also as a means to engage staff. You too can benefit from a reverse mentorship.

After months of preparation, it all comes down to this moment. In the imposingly formal conference room where Deloitte Canada holds its largest, most critical meetings is then managing partner and CEO Alan MacGibbon, typing intently on his laptop, the keystrokes echoing faintly in the nearly empty chamber. This is the boss’s — and Deloitte’s — first live online chat on a new internal social networking platform, with the firm’s full contingent of international managing partners patched in. Only a handful of staffers are in the room, including Karima-Catherine Goundiam, who has spent weeks coaching MacGibbon on social media in anticipation of the event. The excitement is palpable.

“It was like Obama in the war room with his chiefs at his side,” she recalls. But about 10 minutes into the chat MacGibbon relaxes, leans over and says, “I think I got this.” Goundiam practically bursts with pride. “It felt like teaching someone to ride a bike, taking the training wheels off and watching them ride away on their own,” she says.

That 2012 Deloitte rollout of a virtual “global hallway,” where all employees — regardless of role or office — could communicate, is a textbook example of a successful reverse mentorship. These coaching arrangements, in which a senior manager enlists the insight and knowledge of a junior worker to get up to speed on a burgeoning area of technology, aren’t new — many companies, including Deloitte and Cisco, have been championing the benefits of reverse mentorships for the past three or four years. But they are becoming more commonplace as social media channels such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram gain a foothold in the business world and create a divide between so-called digital natives and their less tech-savvy counterparts.

When properly handled, reverse mentorships can be a win-win for both participants: the senior employee gains a comfort level with a new digital medium or tool and, in turn, becomes more accessible to customers, clients and staff at all levels; while the more junior employee makes valuable connections with the top brass, discovers more about the organization’s operations and feels professionally validated. “Reverse mentors take it as a badge of honour,” says Goundiam, who now heads up her own social media agency in Toronto and New York, Red Dot Digital. “It gives them a sense that they count — that their voices are being heard.”

Nick Frate, an assistant director at the Canada Revenue Agency in Ottawa who helped establish a reverse mentoring database for Canada’s public sector employees in 2012 as then chair of the Federal Youth Network, agrees. “It is very powerful for any leader to learn how to address and connect with a segment of the workforce in a way that is relevant and clear — and for those workers to recognize that you are hearing them,” he says. “The most effective leaders understand this isn’t a fad, but a new way of working.”

Indeed, traditional workplace hierarchies will only continue to erode as demographics shift — according to Statistics Canada population estimates, generation Y (a.k.a. millennials, or those born between 1980 and 2000) is already the country’s largest living generation and is expected to comprise more than 40% of the working age populace by 2020.

This influx of younger workers with a distinct preference for digital communication will likely make reverse mentorships even more commonplace. However, any time you have junior staff coaching experienced leaders in new areas that are still gaining traction within the company, there are more than a few potential pitfalls. There can be push-back, bruised egos, feelings of intimidation or shyness and many other concerns. To ensure mutual benefit for both parties, follow the advice of the seasoned reverse mentors and mentees who share their tips below.

KEEP IT INFORMAL AND VOLUNTARY

The most successful reverse mentorships evolve naturally, usually out of a senior employee’s need or desire to boost his or her digital literacy. “This is not about the organization setting it up — it’s a lot more organic than that,” says Frate. “To find a mentor, look for leaders — not necessarily management — with the skill sets you’re interested in and make an ask. That’s how a relationship begins.”

That’s been the case for Liz Da Ponte, a digital strategist with eight years’ experience who is currently with PwC. “It happens on more of an ad hoc basis as people start to realize the benefits of being on social media,” she says. “For example, in a meeting someone might say, ‘I wouldn’t mind someone helping me with LinkedIn,’ and someone else will say, ‘Have you asked Liz? She helped so-and-so with his LinkedIn profile.’ Names just pop up.”

First Step

If you’re not quite ready to seek out a mentor, start by taking webinars or participating in Twitter chats, such as the Marketing Monday (#MMchat) sessions Goundiam hosts each Monday evening. Many organizations run them as well, and they can be a good source of basic information about social media. You may even “meet” a potential mentor that way.

MAKE SURE IT'S A GOOD FIT

Like any type of relationship, the mentor and mentee need to click and have a good personal connection to work together successfully. Frate suggests setting up an initial meeting to gauge that connection before deciding if you want to continue with a second meeting or ongoing mentorship.

Furthermore, age shouldn’t be a criterion in choosing a reverse mentor, says Goundiam. “Age is the wrong marker. Just because someone is young, it doesn’t mean they know all about social media,” she says. “And it’s not enough for mentors to simply know how to use Facebook and Twitter — they must be able to reframe your understanding of what social media can do for you.”

First step

Mentees must lead the way by explaining what they hope to achieve. Their goals — creating an online brand, networking, reaching out to clients, or research — should shape the way mentors approach the training, says Da Ponte.

BUILD AN ENVIRONMENT OF TRUST

It can be intimidating for top-level professionals to admit they don’t know how to use the tools of the day, but Frate argues those who do show this kind of vulnerability are usually well-regarded for it. “It humanizes them,” he says. “Being aware of and open about our own limitations is key, and a mentorship creates a safe space for that.”

Goundiam takes it a step further, underlining that this is where you see the difference between a leader with confidence or a lack of confidence. Both MacGibbon and Deloitte’s current CEO, Frank Vettese, were incredibly supportive, she says — they understood they needed to learn how to use social media themselves if it was to be seen as an important skill firm wide. Unfortunately, a less-assured leader won’t see it that way. “Even though you are the expert, they will tell you how wrong you are. It happens,” she says, referencing a bad situation she experienced mentoring a C-suite manager in another industry. “It has to do with them feeling threatened about new skills making them redundant.”

First step

Regardless of whether you are the mentee or mentor, check your ego at the door. “If you can’t get over having to ask someone younger than you for something then you have a bigger problem than social media,” says Sarah Poole, partner at London, Ont.-based accounting firm Davis Martindale. “Conversely, if it blows you away that someone older than you is asking you for help, it doesn’t mean that you should be running the show while they are put out to pasture.”

AGREE ON THE TIME FRAME AND COMMITMENT

Since most leaders are busy folks, they need to know exactly how and when a mentorship will fit into their schedules lest it fall by the wayside before anything is accomplished. The total time commitment can vary, but Da Ponte finds that three or four hours spread over a two-week period is sufficient to cover the basics of social media and get someone up and running on LinkedIn and Twitter. “After that, I’ll check in every once in a while and ask if they’re continuing to log in, post updates, etc.,” she says. “I make sure to say you don’t have to spend all day every day on social media. Take maybe five to 10 minutes a day on your commute on the train to scroll through and see if there are things you want to comment on.”

Dan Towers, marketing coordinator at Davis Martindale, does the same with the senior staff he coaches in social media. “I’ve pushed their thinking to realize that in 10 to 15 minutes of your day, you can make a significant impact and cultivate business opportunities. It doesn’t have to be daunting, and you should have a bit of fun with it too. The key word in social media is ‘social’— be social and develop relationships.”

First step

Da Ponte usually begins with an hour-long session to get a sense of her mentees’ comfort level with social media and find out their goals, then she’ll create a plan that they can implement over the next couple of weeks.

ADDRESS ANY FEARS OR MISCONCEPTIONS

Wading into the sea of social media can be nerve-racking for those who aren’t versed in it — some might fear it will hurt their reputation, while others may have preconceived notions about what they can or can’t do with it (i.e., “Isn’t it all about people posting photos of their lunch?”). It’s critical for mentors to alleviate those concerns with concrete examples and success stories, says Kevin MacDonald, a business coach who is planning a social media course for the fellow entrepreneurs in his chapter of BNI Business Developers in Edmonton.

For instance, at a recent chapter meeting MacDonald announced he had received a message from someone who had found the group’s Facebook page and wanted to join their chapter — a social media victory that came as a surprise to some. “Immediately I saw four backs straighten, these heads snapped back — one person practically fell out of her chair,” he says. “People are starting to understand that it’s a platform to engage — not just to get your own stuff out there.”

First step

Shift toward a “helping” rather than a “selling” mind-set, says Towers. “Simply ‘liking’ or commenting on a status that a client — or a prospective client — posts can help develop your relationship or perhaps provide a little ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you.’ For a firm that cares about the community and successes of clients, social media is truly the way to reflect this in contemporary society.”

SIDEBAR: WHAT ORGANIZATIONS CAN DO

It can be counterproductive for a business to set up a formal, mandated reverse mentorship program — after all, there’s little to be gained if mentees are unwilling to learn new skills from junior colleagues. Having said that, there are many ways organizations can facilitate reverse mentorships among staff and boost their odds of success.

Provide buy-in. When someone at the top becomes a champion for reverse mentorships, as was the case at Deloitte, it speaks volumes, says Karima-Catherine Goundiam, founder of social media agency Red Dot Digital. Plus, resources to support such arrangements will only come when financial decision-makers are on board.

Help staff find each other. Most companies don’t need a sophisticated mentor/mentee pairing system. The digital registry Nick Frate created in 2012 that matches senior leaders in Canada’s public sector with young public servants who can share their knowledge in social media is a simple Google Doc, where people can sign up with their area of expertise and others can contact them for assistance in that area.

Explain the business case. Technologies evolve and it’s not always evident how or why they should be adopted. “I remember using email only to confirm that people got my fax,” says Liz Da Ponte, a 34-year-old digital strategist. Today, of course, no one would dispute the business case for email. “If you start sharing positive examples of social media, it piques people’s interest and you get a domino effect.”

About the Author

Tamar Satov


Tamar Satov is managing editor of CPA Magazine.

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