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With reverse mentoring, younger employees teach older employees about technology

CHICAGO — Janet Cabot couldn't wait to show Ashley Spohn her accomplishment.

"I am so all over this Delish thing," Cabot bubbled, punching up on the computer in her office at Edelman, a Chicago public relations firm.

"Oh, you're doing so well!" Spohn said delightedly, counting the recipes Cabot collected on the food lovers' Web site. "Look, you've got so much!"

Though Cabot, 56, is Edelman's central region president with more than 30 years in the business, she is the student. Spohn, 23, an account executive, is the teacher.

In-house help

Many organizations eager to strengthen their presence online have discovered that they have the perfect consultants on their staffs: 20-somethings who live in that world.

"We grew up with social media," said Matthew Clay, 23, a media executive at Edelman. "We spent eight hours every day on AOL IM."

The baby boomer executives who might have scolded these young people for that if they had been their parents are now turning to them for help. In formal programs or informal sit-downs, companies are assigning junior staff members to serve as social media guides for their senior ones.

"It literally meant saying, 'Sit down next to me, open an account for me, make me start functionally understanding how to use the tool,' " said Raphael Viton, president of Maddock Douglas, an Elmhurst, Ill., innovation agency.

The lessons can go beyond the technological how-tos. "It's very easy to set up a social networking account. What's harder is figuring out the appropriate way to use it, something that will really help our business," said Bridget Houlihan, 31, a public affairs writer and Web content strategist at Health Care Service Corp., the parent company of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois.

Think of it as reverse mentoring. Edelman does, and so named the program "Rotnem" — mentor, backward.

It has been wildly popular. Some 95 percent of the leadership in the Chicago office have Rotnems, and the company has expanded the program worldwide.

Sometimes the backward-mentoring leads to disconcerting moments. Spohn's junior-level colleagues are sometimes startled when she waves to Cabot in the hallway.

"They say, 'You can say hello to Janet?' I say, 'Sure,' " she said.

And senior executives have to get used to being the learners.

"You feel stupid. And you get to a certain age and you don't want to feel stupid," Cabot said.

Equally beneficial

But the benefits are vast, starting with the intellectually galvanizing effect of breaking down corporate hierarchies.

Senior executives get expert online guides, ideas on how to use social media to further their business goals and insights on managing young employees.

Young people get exposure to top-level executives, opportunities to learn from them and appreciation of their knowledge.

But not everyone is buying into their young employees' worlds. Walter Ousley, 64, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was curious enough to ask the 30-year-old director of communications to show him around Facebook, but he is not sold on it.

"When I started out, people were taking dictation," he said. "I just marveled, and was somewhat apprehensive, about the invasion of privacy and just too much information."

As for getting his own Facebook or Twitter account, "I would not dream of it," he said firmly. "I'm too private. And I'm an old intelligence officer."

But Rotnem is about more than social networking, said Kathy Krenger, 42, who is partnered with Clay at Edelman.

"Even though I learned about the networking, what I really learned about was what (Rotnem-age people) think is important and how they spend their time," she said. "Honestly, it just kind of opened my eyes a little bit."

She is grateful to Clay, who in turn is delighted with his older protege.

"She's the queen of the Facebook page," he said proudly. "She has like 500 friends. It's so cute."

With reverse mentoring, younger employees teach older employees about technology 12/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 5:31pm]
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