Six months ago, on a crisp December evening, Ashwin Srinivasan walked into his senior, Vineet Taneja’s, cabin in the Delhi headquarters of telecom service provider Bharti Airtel. The two men had never met before, Srinivasan, 28, being a senior sales manager for the Middle East and Taneja, 47, operations director for south India and Sri Lanka. But that didn’t matter, because the two men were not meeting to talk shop. Well, not exactly.
In an unusual but increasingly popular corporate training model, Srinivasan had been appointed to ‘reverse-mentor’ his senior, meeting Taneja every month to help him learn to use social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for online promotion and to maximise Airtel’s appeal among youngsters. Their reverse mentorship will continue for 18 months, in a programme underway at Bharti Airtel since 2009.
In addition to helping senior management master new skills in emerging fields, the programme helps juniors connect directly with company management. Employees are paired based on shared interests. Srinivasan and Taneja, for instance, are both devoted to health and fitness.
This, and their shared experiences as management students, helped break the ice and they now hold their sessions over drinks, dinner or coffee.
“Typically, I update Vineet on how the company is being represented on social forums on the internet — blogs, news websites and social networking sites — and suggest ways in which this could be bettered,” says Srinivasan. Across India, companies are beginning to experiment with the concept of reverse mentoring. HR experts, however, point out that the extent of its influence might be limited by corporate India’s hierarchical structure that does not encourage honest debate.
“The concept is at a nascent stage here. Its acceptance will depend on a lot of factors, including seniors’ egos,” says Sunil Goel, director at HR recruitment company GlobalHunt. Reverse mentoring dates back to 2000, when Jack Welch, then CEO of American multinational General Electric, ordered senior executives to learn to use the internet effectively from their juniors.
In India, the concept has picked up over the past three years, says PN Singh, chairman of HR consultancy firm Grid Consultants. “Today, Indian companies realise it is vital to maintain an online presence if they want to connect with young consumers,” he says. In sectors like real estate, the mentoring extends to core operational areas too.At Gurgaon-based CHD Developers, juniors help determine competitive strategies.
“Senior and mid-level management heavily depends on advice from juniors,” says managing director Gaurav Mittal. “After all, they are the ones who research market trends and deal with clients directly at several of our sites.”