In reverse mentoring, the employee becomes the teacher, and the boss the student. For the second anniversary of AXA’s reverse mentoring program, here’s a closer look at an experience that’s as surprising as it is enriching, seen from both sides… of the desk.
With a sparkle in his eyes, thin-frame glasses and a confident handshake, Guillaume Lehallier is a vivacious, cheerful young man with a genuine curiosity about others and the world that surrounds him. This is exactly how his colleagues, friends and even his mentees will describe him. What’s a mentee you ask?
Mentor and mentee, a mighty pair
A mentee is a director or senior manager who is paired with a mentor, a young digital native accustomed to new technologies and social media. Created two years ago, AXA’s reverse mentoring program brings these two generations together to reach a dual goal: familiarise our senior executives with digital technologies and ensure the Group’s successful digital transformation.
Reverse mentoring seems to have become indispensable for many industries wishing to bring their business and services up to the speed in the age of digital transformation. This method, which has allowed many a manager to bridge their digital knowledge gap, has proven extremely useful almost everywhere it has been implemented. And feedback is very positive, with a 97% satisfaction rate at AXA.
Curiosity and enthusiasm, two essential success factors of reverse mentoring
“In another life, I launched a start-up, and I was naive enough to believe that I knew the digital world well,” says Jean-Louis Laurent Josi, member of the AXA Group Management Committee, CEO of AXA Asia and former mentee of Guillaume Lehallier. “But that was in the 2000s, and in this field, you fast become a dinosaur! So what was great with Guillaume was that he helped me to get up to scratch very quickly, while taking care not to bruise my ego. He was very good at that”, recalls Jean-Louis. Nobody denies how fast online technologies change. But teaching one’s boss (or one’s boss’s boss!) how to use them while being kind to their ego may seem easier said than done.
What was Guillaume’s secret? Ask him, and he will answer you with two words: “curiosity and enthusiasm”. Two essential success factors of reverse mentoring which won’t work unless they have the buy-in of both parties. Two character traits which are also esteemed by Jean-Louis and Guillaume. Above all, two attitudes that seem to come naturally to both men, who live 10,000 kilometers apart as the crow flies, one in Paris and the other in Hong Kong.“You know, it’s not because you’re a CEO or member of an executive committee that you’re supposed to know everything,” says Jean-Louis when answering the first question about this brand new experience. "It’s actually quite the opposite."
You can be constantly humble, knowing that you'll never know everything, and that you'll always have to rely on the knowledge of others, especially new waves of talent, to better grasp what's going on. So I wasn't anxious about starting reverse mentoring, I was actually very excited, because I believe life is about constantly learning.
In this particular area, people come up a little too often against the gulf that separates ideas or desires from their practical implementation. The legitimate fear of finding oneself – or merely appearing to be finding oneself – in a situation of inferiority can easily hinder one’s curiosity and enthusiasm. During the individual and regular sessions required for reverse mentoring, the mentor is obviously in the same situation as his or her mentee, and new situations are always destabilizing, no matter who you are.
The "enjoyment factor"
Guillaume, a program manager for AXA’s ecosystem department, also had to adjust his expectations, but not quite in the way he initially thought. “I had been working at AXA’s head office for three years, so I knew a lot of people in senior management roles,” he explains in the sun-filled meeting room next to his open space office. “So I knew they had intellectual knowledge of the digital world, you could tell from their communications in the media."
"But what I discovered, the big lesson I learned from the program is, although they possessed intellectual knowledge of these technologies, what was missing was what I call ‘the enjoyment factor’ – an emotional capacity to simply derive pleasure from using them. Because that’s what makes us spend so much time on this stuff. I think recognising the pleasure that social media bring and the way they make life easier was the key to everything I could pass on to my mentee. And it’s something that I had never really realised myself, because it’s such an integral part of my life.”
Efficient, useful… and fun!
Eighteen months later, contacted between meetings by phone in his Hong Kong office, Jean-Louis has become a regular Twitter user (follow him at @JL_LaurentJosi). His most lasting takeaway from the experience is that it has allowed him to do what he likes best: doing things well. “From the outset, I was sure there were ways it could help, professionally speaking. But I was afraid of spreading myself too thin. So I was quite clear from the start – here’s what I’ll do, and here’s what I won’t do. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get lost among the different solutions, because sooner or later you have to focus your energies instead of dabbling in everything. Guillaume understood that perfectly, and we concentrated on two tools, Twitter and LinkedIn. On the other hand, I don't post anything about my private life on Facebook, or anywhere else for that matter, because I believe in the old French saying, ‘A happy life is a discreet one!’”
Guillaume and Jean-Louis still call each other regularly, as do the other mentors and mentees. It’s the best way for the mentee to stay abreast of innovations in this ever-changing sector. It also helps the mentor to stay in touch with users who are not immersed in the latest changes, big or small, and to better grasp their questions and concerns regarding the newest application in vogue.
This mix of usage and teaching, of transmission and enthusiasm, makes it possible to break away from an over-intellectualized use of social media. And that’s essential, because ultimately social media are, above all, a means of self-expression.
Whatever happens, neither party could put a price on the pleasure of having mutually expanded their horizons. When asked to sum up the experience in three words, without skipping a beat Jean-Louis says, “Efficient – very efficient – very useful and… what’s the word? It gave me the opportunity to build a friendly relationship with my professor!” And what does the professor have to say? “It's very important to me that my mentees discover how much we, the new generations, all truly enjoy using these technologies. All the new possibilities they open up. This mix of usage and teaching, of transmission and enthusiasm, makes it possible to break away from an over-intellectualized use of social media. And that’s essential, because ultimately social media are, above all, a means of self-expression,” concludes Guillaume, ever the analytic and forward-looking techie.
The benefits of reverse mentoring are human, above all. When two distant worlds, like two generations in the age of bitcoins and Pokemon Go, lack knowledge of each other and don’t even know how to talk to one another, the frustration bred by mutual incomprehension and the resulting daily annoyances on either side are as harmful to personal well-being as to workplace efficiency. Let’s be honest: who hasn’t been confronted with a similar situation? On the Internet, there are no contact forms to launch a reverse mentoring program on one's own initiative. Not even Google has the answer to the question, “Where do I sign-up to learn the web?”