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How reverse mentoring closes the supply chain skills gap

Perhaps for the first time in history, younger generations have skills their elders don’t possess. For these digital natives, technology is a way of life, not a hard-won new habit. That’s why supply chain companies are putting a twist on training with reverse mentoring programs to help close the skills gap with older workers.

“The younger generations inching into the workforce grew up as the chief technology officer of their household, helping family members troubleshoot a laptop or whatever, and it’s really the first time that generations coming into the workforce have skills and knowledge that previous generations don’t have,” Ryan Jenkins, a mentoring consultant, told Supply Chain Dive.

Supply chain professionals see hiring skilled workers as their biggest challenge, and the shortage of workers with the right skills has delayed their efforts to implement digital technologies, according to a recent report from MHI.

In reverse mentoring programs, younger employees educate their more experienced counterparts on using new technology, social media and understanding Millennials and Gen Z workers, who tend to have different priorities regarding work than Baby Boomers and Gen X members of the workforce.

A new twist on an old tactic

Former CEO of GE Jack Welch is credited with popularizing the idea of reverse mentorship in 1999. He selected a junior employee to meet with him regularly and paired 500 top leaders with junior associates to learn about the Internet.

“I always encourage leaders to go beyond technology and social media and engage with someone more junior and talk to them about communication or leadership,” Jenkins said.

Reverse mentoring for supply chain companies and departments can be valuable because the supply chain function interacts with so many other aspects of the business.

Pairing co-workers from supply chain and finance in a mentoring relationship would help both sides learn more about the cost implications of the supply chain and how that relates to the company’s financial performance. Marketing and supply chain pairs could get a better understanding of how supply chain support’s the company’s position in the marketplace with its customers.

“If you aspire to be a leader in the supply chain, your internal stakeholders are all across the company, and there’s no better way to learn than to be in a mentorship program,” Rodney Apple, a supply chain talent consultant, told Supply Chain Dive.

Pairing up for digital transformation

Several leading companies such as Aetna, HP, Burberry and others have launched some form of a reverse mentoring program. Many companies start with a pilot or initially target a single department.

In 2015, Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda established a reverse mentoring program that involved more than 470 mentors and 300 executives in over 20 markets. The program pairs members of the executive leadership team with a reverse mentor who can offer them a different viewpoint. The pairs may be cross-functional and meet at least quarterly, although many meet monthly and email between meetings.

At Bayer, the reverse mentoring program connects millennials as mentors to senior leaders to accelerate the organization’s digital transformation, Ruzha Draganova, program leader, told Supply Chain Dive in an email.

The pairs meet at least once a month over a six- to nine-month period to learn about current digital topics and trends and new ways of working. Overall, 540 employees from 35 countries have participated in the program since 2018.

Participants from the supply chain arena connect with data scientists to better understand digital trends and possible applications to the company.

“Our teams are looking at how to tackle problems such as enhancing transparency and traceability along the entire supply chain,” Draganova wrote. “Also, we bring supply chain colleagues from different divisions together to learn about their best practices for the usage of data analytics for improved planning and replenishment systems.”

The Association of Supply Chain Management (ASCM) plans to roll out a reverse mentoring program for its 45,000 members in 2020, Kathleen Schroeder, director of membership, told Supply Chain Dive.

“The mentors in our mentoring program tell us they learn so much from their mentees and they get so much out it themselves. We’re going to formalize that experience with a reverse mentor program,” Schroeder said. At any given time, about 400 ASCM members are enrolled in the mentor program.

Reverse mentorship programs act as a two-way street, providing an opportunity for more senior co-workers to demonstrate soft skills that the younger generation seems to lack.

“The established generations are able to give the emerging generation the interpersonal skills that younger generations are longing for,” Jenkins said. “You can display what a firm handshake looks like, the power of eye contact, how to listen actively, and all those things that picked up in social environments.”

The need for formal structure, concrete goals

While reverse mentoring may happen organically as co-workers help each other with daily problems, a program with a formal structure is more likely to be successful.

Osman Khan, a 25-year-old senior consultant for a large supply chain consultancy, tried to start a reverse mentoring program within his department to supplement the company’s traditional mentoring programs. He launched the program on his own initiative without support from a senior level executive didn’t find many willing participants.

“It didn’t seem like there was an appetite for it. Just saying reverse mentoring is going to be beneficial isn’t enough; you have to set up a framework and have specific goals,” Khan told Supply Chain Dive.

Apple said it’s essential to identify gaps in the organization that a reverse mentoring program could improve upon. “Are you looking at technical skills or thinking about succession planning?”

Reverse mentoring beyond company boundaries

After serving as a reverse mentor to a Fortune 100 marketing executive in New York when she was 21, Ieva Gaigala returned to Paris and founded Revolyx, a reverse mentoring consultancy that uses an app to help pair participants and support communication throughout the program.

The app can match individual participants who don’t work for the same company or live in the same country but want to enjoy reverse mentoring relationship. The app can also help companies scale up a reverse mentoring program to match large groups of people with the right skills and goals. It’s easy to match people in a small department. It’s more difficult to match participants throughout a global company.

“Reverse mentoring is really individual personal development so it doesn’t matter which type of company you’re working at or which department. Anybody can learn from other generations and get a new perspective on the things that they’re doing,” Gaigala said.

Read More: Supply Chain Dive