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How can leaders stop their brightest and best staff jumping ship?

by Didi Ogede

Filed under Next Gen / Diversity of Thinking

The disconnect between top leaders and their Next Generation staff is widening. That’s one of the findings identified by our four years of research into Thinking the Unthinkable. We have been asking why leadership is failing in this era of disruption and instability – what we call the “New Normal.”

Organisations risk losing their brightest and best. We set out to discover why.

The Next Gens are alienated because they don’t like the style of leadership they see from the top.

It is conformist, rules-driven with short-term mindsets and behaviours.

Younger workers are seeking jobs with purpose, impact and recognition of their values and ideas.

When they don’t find it, many opt to leave their jobs and start their own companies.

“The Emperor Has No Clothes”

This was encapsulated bluntly by one of our interviewees, Aniket Shah, who has worked both in the financial sector and on public policy. He’s currently also the Chair of the Board at Amnesty International USA.

“I have come to the conclusion that all of these organisations or institutions that we once held in high esteem and sort of revered tremendously are actually dying a very slow but painful death.… We look up and we know exactly what these people do, as we live in a transparent world. And we say, “You know what? The emperor (leadership) has no clothes. We can do this a lot better.”

So what can be done? Reverse mentoring is one option some bold leaders are employing where staff at lower levels of an organisation coach and mentor more senior level staff.

Thinking the Unthinkable (TtU) research findings are based on hundreds of interviews and conversations, many in private. We have verbatim transcripts, notes of conversations, and relevant on the record interviews on radio, TV programmes, and also public events.

Our 2,500 pages of transcripts and notes reveal the value that can be unlocked by recognising the skills, insights and smart understanding of the new reality that the Next Gen often have. The research also indicates that there are invaluable benefits to this type of multi-generational engagement.

The exchange of digital knowledge, renewed energy and drive towards purpose and values to name a few.

Challenge thinking

Our data analysis reveals these benefits are being recognised by an increasing number of senior leaders. The table below illustrates the number of participants who spoke about mentoring/reverse mentoring, engaging millennials and intergenerational engagement.

Out of the 48 participants that mentioned mentoring or reverse mentoring, 52% were aged 50-69. There are two reasons. Firstly, many told us they are deeply concerned about retaining the brightest of their staff. Secondly, they are of an age that their own children have left home, so as one German business leader told us, he has no-one from the next generation to challenge his thinking over the dinner table.


Sam White, Aviva Group Sustainability and Public Policy Director, described reverse mentoring to our project as a ‘great opportunity’ to see business from a different perspective.

“The graduate I had last, she was of the millennial generation, early 20s, and very confident.”

“She was very competently able to articulate what we were doing wrong, and what we could be doing better in my team, which was incredibly welcome, very useful. I ended up have her reverse mentor me, which is … just really refreshing and really interesting to understand how she saw some of the digital tools we used and thought about them differently than I did.”

Harriet Green, the former CEO of Thomas Cook, explained to us her aim when she introduced reverse mentoring into the company:

“Every senior person having a bright young thing from the new web, social media, digital media groups, to be their mentor, to help them understand the issues around search and other things that are part of the everyday activity.”

The need to gather insights and engage in an effective manner with staff at lower levels was reiterated by General Sir Nick Carter . When he took over as head of the British Army in 2014 he embarked on the unthinkable of making big reforms in a famously hierarchic top-down organisation.

“What I have sought to do is to cascade the idea of empowerment down into the bowels of the institution. Now, I’ve done that by doing it from the bottom up…”

Appreciative inquiry

General Carter also told us about the importance of open and honest discussions with staff to identify organisational issues using the method of ‘appreciative inquiry’.

“We gathered together in a great marquee at tables of 12, and we asked a big question: How do we make this great institution greater? Very important question, that, because it means that we don’t think we’re bad, we think we’re great, but we want to become greater…All morning we made them do a series of exercises, the outcome of which was that we identified four things that they felt were great about our company and that we needed to build on.”

Reverse mentoring - if done well - can have an immensely positive effect on organisations and its people.

One other TtU case study is the East African mobile phone company Safaricom. It was forced to create its Blaze initiative in 2016 to take notice of the disgruntled next generation who were deserting as customers because they angrily complained data charges were too high and inflexible.

Blaze responded to their needs by providing them with relevant services and skills. Supporting unconventional journeys to success and empowering the youth through initiatives, such as Be Your Own Boss [BYOB] Summits and Boot Camps.

Senior staff were given a reverse mentor so they understand the new generation, who call themselves ‘Digital Ninjas.’

Through our case studies and research on Thinking the Unthinkable we have identified some key lessons:

  • Don’t stereotype generations. Avoid tokenism. Recruitment should be based on individual personalities and skill sets; aiming to have a diverse range of young staff who will counter group thinking and conformity - if given the opportunity.

  • Set up youth councils or committees within organisations to help promote alternate thinking.

  • Allow reverse mentoring in different sectors of the organisation to facilitate learning and development; as well as cross-sector learning and engagement.

  • Promote values-based leadership to truly motivate the next generation of mentors/leaders; as well as build trust

Diversity and inclusion

An increasing number of businesses are beginning to incorporate reverse mentoring within their organisations.

Our own independent online research found that large corporations such as KPMG, Linklaters and Clifford Chance have programmes specifically focused on pairing junior lawyers from minority ethnic backgrounds with senior partners.

These initiatives were typically established as a step to drive diversity and inclusion. In this way senior members of staff are mentored by someone from the black and minority ethnic (BME) community, allowing them to see the organisation through a different lens.

Edleen John, KPMG’s Inclusion and Diversity senior leader, has had this to say:

“It [reverse mentoring] focuses on the more junior employees imparting their knowledge to the more senior individuals; sharing information about their background, who they are and what it’s like working here at KPMG.”

Fiona Hobbs, Global Diversity & Inclusion partner at Linklaters also sees the benefits:

“We know that if you want to learn something, you need to explore new ideas and new ways of working. Reverse mentoring is just one way we can do that.”

Reverse mentoring can also foster diversity of thinking and help older staff-members get their heads round new technology.

One case in point is a pilot scheme set up by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). The pilot was designed as a business resilience initiative with a focus on up-skilling senior executives in the use of technology.

Pilot co-ordinator and Progress Network first vice chair, Rebecca Wooding said:

“Our pairings unanimously agreed that their experiences had smashed their previously held unconscious bias.”

Gaining momentum

TtU’s own research highlights diversity and inclusion as key issues for leaders to focus on and some of the tools (if effectively used) to enable them to thrive on change and manage disruption.

It is clear why reverse mentoring is gaining such momentum.

It enables multi-generational engagement between people with diverse views and backgrounds.

It provides illuminating insights which are beneficial for the organisation as well as personal development.

One of the strongest public advocates of diversity has been the outgoing CEO of Lloyds of London, Inga Beale.

“We need to be reminded of what’s happening in this world and how the new generation thinks differently, behaves differently, and wants different things,” she said.

“One of my reverse mentors told me that they didn’t pick up print media ever. It’s all on their mobile phone. I said, ‘Well, everything?’ ‘Yes everything, we get everything. This is how we get all our news’. It was a real wake up call for me.

“I also realised that …There’s a lot of the younger generation who want to see you as a human. They want to know what you feel about things. What you think about things.”

So the challenge for leaders and their organisations is how to change mindsets.

The use of innovative approaches such as reverse mentoring requires significant non-cash investments; including a determination to challenge established hierarchies.

This has to be part of a greater willingness by leaders to try to change behaviour, mindset and culture of their organisation from the top down.

To explore reverse mentoring as an issue or contribute your thoughts on leadership, sign up to our mailing list and join our Lillypad Network.

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