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Reverse mentoring builds teams, NEW panel says

Friday, May 21, 2010  
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Reverse or "open” mentoring is helping a growing number of companies foster professional relationships that cut across age, rank and job function, according to a Network-led panel at FMI 2010 May 12 in Las Vegas.

More than 100 executives gathered to hear the panel, led by NEW Executive Director Joan Toth, discuss "Reverse Mentoring: What Can Boomers Learn from Gen X/Y?.” Dennis Belcastro, vice president of customer development and industry affairs for Kraft Foods; Denise Broderick, director of management development for Hy-Vee; Martha Freitas, assistant human resource manager for the Southwest Division of The Kroger Co.; and Bob Richardson, director of sales, customer and industry development, Clorox Co., addressed the impact these low-cost programs can have on business results.

"Think of [reverse mentoring] as a free-flowing marketplace of ideas: I'll show you how to build a budget; you show me how our company can use social networking," Toth advised attendees. "By turning the conventional wisdom of mentoring on its head, everyone involved can learn from each other.”

Asked to describe an "a-ha” moment relative to "open” mentoring, Kraft Foods' Belcastro said, "We realized that as the consumer changed, we had a gap we had to fill, because we were missing the perspectives of the younger generation.” Kraft created a fast-track program to accelerate the careers of young leaders, which included six-month cross-functional training rotations. During this process, executives sought the perspectives of Gen X and Y employees and used their ideas to change the company's culture and build more relevant products and programs.

At Kroger, a concern with optimizing the workforce and a desire to retain more women leaders ed to a series of focus groups. "This allowed us to understand what women felt they needed to succeed at Kroger,” Freitas said.

Hy-Vee saw a need to tap into the insights and perspectives of younger workers to fuel innovation, according to Broderick. "We created a business plan project and gave our college grads business problems to solve and then present to senior management,” she noted. "Because of these projects, we have a new manufacturing process in our bakery and a new pizza marketing campaign that leverages social media. These young professional are positively impacting our business.”

With the help of its younger workers, who think of new ways to use technology to get a job done, Clorox is redefining processes, Richardson noted. Indeed, younger workers' technology skills are helping companies stay on top of trends on multiple fronts.

"It is really important to listen to what they say if you want to leverage opportunities, especially in social media,” Kroger's Freitas advised. Broderick agreed, adding, "Potential employees read about your company on Facebook and Twitter, so be sure to find out what interests them and make sure your content delivers.”

Kraft is revising its training and development programs, adding interactive gaming elements, which the younger generation enjoy, Belcastro noted.

Among the key points the industry executives have learned in their relationships with younger employees: Members of Gen Y and Gen X rank work/life balance more important than their Baby Boomer colleagues and use technology as an enabler to help them get their work done.

"Boomers tend to look at technology like Blackberries as status symbols of rank versus tools to get the job done more efficiently and effectively,” Freitas noted.

Added Richardson: "At Clorox we focus on communicating clear expectations and goals and then we get out of the way, so our employees can accomplish the work in the best way they see fit.”

The panel discussion closed with advice for employees of all generations who want to get along better with the colleagues: Become a better listener, be flexible and carefully communicate across the generations in a manner that resonates with them. While Boomers may like a formal thank you note on stationary, a Gen X or Gen Y is happy to receive a Tweet.

"We all know diverse work teams consistently outperform non-diverse teams,” Toth said. "A reverse mentoring program encourages multiple opportunities for idea sharing, is low cost and can involve anyone in your organization. Just remember, no one is too old to stop learning or too young to start teaching!”

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