Reverse mentoring: What does an intern teach a CEO?

If there is anything ad land is ubiquitously voicing today, it's the indispensable & gratifying spirit of youth in the advertising field. From Piyush Pandey, Sunil Lulla, KV Sridhar

e4m by Henna Achhpal and Saloni Datta
Updated: Jul 29, 2014 8:17 AM
Reverse mentoring: What does an intern teach a CEO?

For an industry that survives on fresh ideas, it is no surprise that advertising is constantly brimming with young talent. In a reversal of roles, this new generation — the millennial — now plays the part of mentor to its bosses. Be it through a formal protocol or informal dialogue, it's common for seniors in an organization to mentor new entrants. But it is adland with an 'anything goes' attitude that we are talking about, and sure enough, the roles have reversed.

Here’s what some of the top honchos of ad world have to say about the essence and the significance of youth in the advertising industry.

"If I didn't have youngsters in my agency, I would have retired 20 years back. They inspire you every day. Reverse mentoring is a day-to-day job. Every time a youngster comes up with an idea and surprises the hell out of you, you must thank him because he taught you something new," remarked Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman & Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather.

KV Sridhar, Chief Creative Officer, SapientNitro said, "If I didn’t learn from my juniors, I would have been outdated many years ago. I take every opportunity to teach at universities because teaching is an excuse to learn. Today, the junior copywriter has as much knowledge as you because he has done his research. Earlier, you needed 10-15 years of experience before you could head an agency. Today, you don’t need that much because of the amount of exposure available for young professionals to see every case study across the world. They’re far more informed than the previous generation."

"They are not weighed down by tradition so they think differently, which can be an advantage sometimes. Their impulse may lead to erroneous judgement, but as long as they can recognize the difference, they will always be the smarter generation. They spot new content trends faster and prefer less tedious ways of working. They are outspoken and outlandish in asking for a higher price at a sales pitch. Bargaining for a discount is yet another amazing talent. These are some of the things I cherish about working with younger people," commented Sunil Lulla, Chairman & Managing Director, Grey Group India.

Raj Nair, Chief Creative Officer, Madison BMB said, "Learning from juniors is a daily part of the job. Simply put, it’s they who keep me young with their thinking, innovations and freshness. I may have spent a number of years in advertising, but I try and not let that get in the way of thinking. They keep my thinking fresh."

What are organizations doing to involve the young?

Young achievers are reaching new heights backed by only a few years of experience and agencies are turning into a melting pot with both senior and junior executives learning from one another. As the lines between age groups blur, a two-way exchange of ideas is becoming the norm.

Source: The Millenial Compass Report by MSL Group

Nitin Paranjpe, Global President, Home Care Division, Unilever, said, "One of the things that I plan to do this year is to have reverse mentoring, where I will have a 25-year-old trainee from the company be my formal mentor and guide me as far as the digital space is concerned. I will subject myself to projects, reports and reviews just as is done with trainees."

Savita Mathai, Senior VP-HR, FCB Ulka, said, "We recruit youngsters in large numbers and invest systematically for their growth into future leaders." The agency has a comprehensive entry level programme called Star One, in which all the classes are conducted by seniors in the company. "From Day One, trainees interact with leaders in the company, sharing their views and ideas. Starting in this way enables them to work closely with the seniors on an ongoing basis," says Mathai.

At BBH India, the efforts are more subtle.  Subhash Kamath, CEO & Managing Partner, BBH India said, "We've intentionally created a flat structure with just two or three levels between the top management and juniormost person." Going beyond the people structure, BBH has focused on the office design as well. Kamath explains, "We have very few cabins and no cubicles. The team directors and juniors sit at the same table. Most work-related decisions are taken in group sessions on the brand."

Informal lunches with senior management are a common occurrence in organizations. While FCB Ulka has 'Lunch with Punch', Viacom 18 has 'VatsUp Lunches'. "The lunch interactions happen between Sudhanshu Vats and 10 employees, offering him a window into their minds and giving them a chance to know their leader up close. The selection of members is random, although equal representation across units is ensured," says Abhinav Chopra, EVP – HR, Viacom18.

Among one of the hallmark initiatives in the industry is GroupM's YCO or Youth Executive Committee, appointed to take part in decision-making and actually running the agency. Gaurav Hirey, Chief Talent Officer, GroupM-South Asia says, "Srini (CVL Srinivas) spent a day with one of the younger media planners to learn media planning all over again. For him, just sitting there and getting that experience was phenomenal. Ideas that come from the YCO are new and refreshing. It’s never the same solution for the same old problem."

Commenting on the initiative, CVL Srinivas, CEO, GroupM South Asia says, "It helps us harness the knowledge, energy and enthusiasm at the junior levels and give them a platform to add value to our network. We received valuable insights regarding digital transformation, talent retention and internal and external communication programmes. Based on these, we made several changes to the way we used to operate. YCO has definitely played a big role in helping GroupM stay young, hungry and to embrace change."

Meanwhile, Leo Burnett believes in a 'bottoms up' approach. "We have identified five key organizational priorities and set up five councils with clearly outlined objectives to be achieved at the end of 12 months. The youngsters are our rising stars and they are the ones who are actually contributing the ideas and implementing them. The senior management is only playing a mentoring role," says Surbhi Gupta, Head - People & Culture, Leo Burnett India.

How promising is the concept of Reverse Mentoring?

While senior management may be learning from juniors through daily interaction, opinions vary on whether reverse mentoring should be made the norm in agencies. Kamath thinks making it an official process will take the joy out of it. Instead, it should be seeded into the culture of the organization, he says. "One must focus on creating an environment where ideas can flow freely, without any invisible walls of hierarchy. Most importantly, the top person has to walk the talk. The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle. As a leader, you have to make yourself easily accessible, create more opportunities to interact with the youngsters. Work with them, not above them. Sometimes, you get to know people much better outside of work," he observes.

Mathai adds, "Mentoring by definition is a two-way process. Organizations first need to have a mentoring culture of which reverse mentoring would be a natural outcome." Lulla, incidentally, has made it a point to work in organizations that have an average age below 30. He advises, "Put young people in charge of committees, internal awards, quality and processes. They will create stellar new ideas and generate initiatives which save money and/or make money."

Sam Balsara, Chairman & MD, Madison World considers reverse mentoring to be more of a fad. He says, "I am not sure it can be institutionalized. There are some companies which have a young phantom board, but these are fads; they come and go. I am not aware of any company that has had a phantom young board going for 10 years. We instituted a young board in our PR unit some years ago but it fizzled out in some time." On the other hand, Rahul Kansal, Executive President, BCCL thinks it's a terrific idea. "By observing young people, you also learn a lot about changing consumer values," he states.

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