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 how to use social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for subtle 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 has the added advantage of helping juniors connect directly with company management, and helping people from different areas of the company network.
With this in mind, 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 at that first meeting and, ever since, they have held their sessions over drinks, dinner or coffee.
"Typically, I update Vineet on how the company is being represented on several social forums on the internet - blogs, news websites and social networking sites - and suggest ways in which this could be bettered," says Srinivasan. "Initially, I was a little apprehensive, but now we are very comfortable with each other."
A welch technique
Across India, companies large and small are beginning to experiment with the concept of reverse mentoring. HR experts, however, point out that the rate and extent of its influence will most likely be limited by corporate India's strictly hierarchical structure, which still favours yes-manship over honest debate.
"The concept is still at a nascent stage here. Its full acceptance will depend on a lot of factors, including seniors' egos," says Sunil Goel, director at HR recruitment company GlobalHunt.
The practice of reverse mentoring is believed to date back to 2000, when Jack Welch, a celebrated business leader and then CEO of American multinational company General Electric, ordered senior executives in the company to learn from their juniors how to use the internet more effectively.
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 are realising that it is vital to maintain an online presence through social media and apps if they want to connect with young consumers," he says.
Usually, a junior employee is paired with a senior, whom he or she then 'mentors' in areas relating to technology, social media, marketing and client servicing.
In Bangalore, for instance, SAP Labs India has been practicing reverse mentoring informally and now plans to implement the concept formally, according to HR head Bhuwaneshwar Naik.
In some sectors, such as real estate and education, the mentoring extends to core operational areas too.
At Gurgaon-based CHD Developers, a 21-year-old listed real-estate company, juniors are even helping determine competitive strategies to woo young families.
"The 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."