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Using 'reverse mentoring' for executive social education

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Top executives have come under fire recently for their reluctance to adopt social media. A study by CEO.com found that fewer than 8% of CEOs use Facebook, only 1.8% use Twitter and 70% have no social media presence at all. The Hartford Financial Services Group was seeing the same trend among its own senior executives, so it set out to train them in the tools and culture of social media through a novel “reverse mentoring” program that has entry-level employees in their 20s tutoring corporate officers. Launched last year with C-suite executives and a line of business leaders, the program has been so successful that Hartford expanded it this year to include direct reports and select department heads. Reverse mentoring has done more than just show top brass how to improve golf swings with YouTube videos. It has changed the organization fundamentally, erasing traditional hierarchies and flattening communications. "We've had executives work with people six levels below them in the organization," said Lisa Bonner (@LisaCBonner), assistant VP-contemporary work practices at Hartford. “They're saying hi to people in the hall that they never would have met otherwise.” Reverse mentoring isn't a new concept. Former GE CEO Jack Welch employed the concept in the early days of the Internet, directing 500 executives to reach out to people below them on the totem pole to learn how to get online. Social media has provided a more recent catalyst, with companies like Cisco Systems, Ogilvy & Mather and Hewlett-Packard launching formal or informal reverse-mentoring programs. The PR firm Edelman did the same thing in a 2009 program called “Rotnem”— “mentor” spelled backwards. Hartford's year-old program consists of seven one-on-one sessions of 30 minutes to an hour each every three weeks. They cover tactical issues like how to use search engines more effectively, but also touch on bigger cultural themes like how employees can better find each other using internal social networks. Mentors were recruited more for their people skills than their social media expertise, Bonner said. Notes from each session are posted on a Sharepoint server for other executives to see. Corporate culture at Hartford places a premium on diversity and inclusion, so senior execs weren't self-conscious about pairing up with people 30 years their junior. In fact, the experiment has led to several of what Bonner calls “A-ha!” moments, when corporate officers begin to see the world through the eyes of Millennials. For example, executives learned that today's young employees typically search for solutions before asking friends for advice, as older pros have always done. "They understood that the people they interact with don't all fit into a defined group," said Timothy Banker (@TheBankShow), 28, a digital strategy lead and mentor to Hartford CEO Liam E. McGee. A turning point in the experiment was putting Apple iPads in the hands of top executives. As they discovered the power of searching for answers on the spot, officials wanted others in the company to have the same flexibility. That's been one of the motivations to unblock social networks, previously off-limits to Hartford employees. It wasn't just the executives who benefited. Junior mentors got invaluable glimpses into executive interactions. Banker said it was disconcerting at first to have his CEO “student” periodically called out of training sessions for phone calls from the governor, but it also dramatized the importance of Hartford's senior management to the economy as a whole. “It was an unforgettable experience," he said. Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB. He can be reached at paul@gillin.com.
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