Reverse mentoring: A unique approach to rejuvenating your IT culture

Reverse mentoring: A unique approach to rejuvenating your IT culture

CIOs often lament the IT talent shortage, and unless you’re able to lure young techies with stock options, perks and too-good-to-pass-up pay, you may find yourself leading a department stuck in its legacy ways. One solution is to train your veteran IT staff to evolve with the times by tapping a hidden teacher pool: millennial “digital natives.”

Aflac CIO Julia Davis has made great strides on this front by creating a reverse mentoring program that pairs veteran IT staff with “apprentices,” most of whom are recent college graduates. The initiative is enabling her 470 employees, whose average age numbers 48, to benefit from a corporate mind-meld intended to modernize and transform IT service delivery, Davis told CIO.com in a recent interview.

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“We have to go through a cultural shift in what we’re doing with technology and changing the organization, moving IT away from order taker to being a consultative partner with the business,” Davis said.

It’s an issue many organizations are grappling with as an ever-increasing rate of change facilitates digital disruption across industries. CIOs are searching for employees skilled in the latest mobile, cloud, social and analytics tools, who can build, ship and maintain software using agile and devops methodologies. But such skillsets are in short supply at traditional enterprises whose IT workforces are long in legacy systems and short on digital capabilities.

Enter digitally-savvy millennials as mentors. This younger generation, now entering the workforce, is a great resource for educating more tenured staff members on the use of new technologies, Gartner analysts Lily Mok and Diane Berry wrote in a research note earlier this year.

“In return, younger staff can gain from senior staff knowledge and capabilities, such as business acumen, proper business protocol and more mature decision-making skills that come with time and experience,” the analysts wrote.

Ending the firefighting mentality

Both sides of the coin are on display at Aflac, located in Columbus, Ga., a far cry from tech-talent rich Silicon Valley. When Davis joined the company in 2013 she met veteran engineers working with 30-year-old mainframes and other legacy technologies. IT metrics included counting lines of code in each software release rather than benchmarking value against industry best practices. This made it hard to align IT with the business. “It was an a-ha moment for me,” Davis said.

Moreover, rather than use a wealth of software it had purchased to monitor alerts and track performance, the IT staff attempted manual fixes, leading to high failure rates. Davis vowed to jettison the “firefighter” mentality. “It’s about changing the nature of the culture to say, ‘I know you love being the hero but wouldn’t it be a lot easier if you didn’t have to get in there at 2 a.m. to fix a batch job that failed?’” Davis says.

She was certain that the agile methodology would help galvanize software development and support Aflac’s efforts to provide customers with superior insurance services. But to achieve this Davis realized she needed to shift the cultural mindset of a department that had become set in its ways and that could benefit from new blood and training. She also needed to lure more staff to replace retirees. “I need a lot more apprentices coming in than I need retirees going out,” Davis said.

Borrowing from reverse mentoring practices she participated in while working as CIO of General Electric years ago, Davis set up a program in which apprentices work with members of her IT team in two-year rotations. Apprentices shuttle from team to team every few months to get a feel for the nuances of Aflac’s IT roles, operations and culture.

Candidates include recent college graduates and workers looking to “reboot their careers,” said Matt Lynn, resource manager in Davis’ department who runs the program. Lynn said that the placement rate for apprentices within Aflac is 93 percent.

New staff teaches older staff new tricks

Aflac apprentices, many of whom grew up as smartphones, mobile applications and social media became ubiquitous, school the veterans on the latest digital tools. The structure of the apprenticeship system also allows younger employees to create connections with multiple senior leaders, rather than reporting to one boss, which is typical in most corporate hierarchies.

“You can talk to anyone you want at any time about anything,” Davis said. “It’s a great way to put stickiness on a new person coming in and it’s helped senior people understand what is of interest to the younger generation.”

That was certainly the case for Wesley Eugene, Davis’ chief of staff, who said one of his apprentice mentors taught him about applications such as TripIt, a travel itinerary planner, and advised him to be more active on social media, helping Eugene graduate from being a Twitter “tweet lurker” to active tweeting. “It’s getting my context to shift more digitally as I interact with them,” Eugene said. “Frankly, they just have a different view of the world.”

Successful apprentices create something of a desirable problem: Demand is so high that before they are done with a rotation they’ve got multiple managers who want to hire them. Davis said this forces managers to raise their game to be the kind of leaders for whom apprentices strive to work.

While creating a mentee-mentor buddy system is paying dividends on the knowledge-sharing front, Davis is also working through the mechanics of getting traditional IT workers out of their waterfall silos and buddying up with the business.

“Part of my challenge is educating my leaders so they understand to be more open, collaborative and not top-down,” Davis said. “We have to break down the hierarchical structure as we’re moving more to agile and a team-based approach.”

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