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October 19, 2017

Millennials should 'reverse mentor' health care leaders. Here's why.

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    Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 15, 2019.

    Read Advisory Board's take on millennial mentors in health care.

    To keep on top of new technology and emerging market trends, companies are increasingly turning toward their millennial employees—and positioning them as mentors for their executives, Kevin Roose writes for the New York Times.


    According to Roose, the trend of so-called "millennial mentors" is a "formalized, mildly absurdist version of the advice junior workers have been giving their older colleagues for ages," including insights on Twitter, Snapchat, and other quickly changing technologies. These mentors can provide a pulse check on what younger consumers are interested in. And while these "reverse mentoring" programs may mark a departure from traditional top-down management style, they aren't completely new: Jack Welch, who helmed General Electric in the 1990s, at one point required 500 of his senior leadership staff to partner with junior employees to improve their internet skills.

    Nowadays, however, there is an "entire cottage industry" aimed to providing millennial insights to companies, Roose writes, from books to festivals to even independent millennial consultants, who charge as much as $20,000 per hour to give executives at companies such as Oracle, HBO, and Estée Lauder advice on how to market to young people. In fact, according to Source Global Research, U.S. companies invested about $80 million in "generational consulting" in 2016.

    Looking to younger employees

    In response, many executives are turning inwards, culling insights from the millennials they already have on board.

    For instance, David Watson, a 38-year-old managing director at Deutsche Bank, routinely meets with Fernando Hernandez, a 29-year-old engineer with the company. According to Watson, Hernandez suggested the company offer flexible work hours as a way to retain younger employees and provided insights on trends in the financial technology industry. "It's valuable information," Watson said. "When you're making decisions about budgets, or priorities, or hiring, you can actually put into practice what you learned."

    And while Watson acknowledged some initial awkwardness around the arrangement, as well as doubts he could learn from someone so many years younger, he has since changed his mind. "To sit down with someone who's on the org[anizational] chart six levels below me is education," Watson said, adding, "You learn about yourself, and how you differ from them."

    Some concerns

    Some younger employees have voiced concerns about the trend, saying they still lack the traditional top-down mentorship opportunities that could help them advance their careers. However, some millennials have found that reverse mentorship programs can help serve the same purpose, as younger mentors get advice from their older mentees, too (Roose, New York Times, 10/15).

    Advisory Board's take

    Carol Boston-Fleischhauer

    Carol Boston-Fleischhauer, CNO and Managing Director

    As more millennials enter the workplace, many organizations are developing mentorship programs to help with engagement and retention of junior staff. Reverse mentorship programs can be an incredibly powerful complement to these initiatives.

    Many health care executives could benefit from a millennial mentor. In-depth exposure to the experience and viewpoint of a younger staff member will help leaders harness millennials' strengths to make a positive impact on their organization. For instance, the newest members of the workforce often suggest compelling innovations.

    Nursing leaders with millennial mentor have told us they've been invaluable. Michelle Janney, EVP and CNE Indiana University Health, told our Nursing Executive Center, "Survey data isn't going to be enough to help us understand what [millennial] staff want and need. We need to deepen our relationships to become more inclusive in our thinking. That may mean reconsidering who are the mentors in our lives."

    Another nursing executive told us that "reverse mentoring" is a great opportunity to develop aspiring nurse leaders—and to shatter stereotypes. "As I've gotten to know the millennial nurses, I've seen their hunger to be involved and make a difference," which has helped "us all think a little differently about them." Other nursing leaders told us that millennial mentors have helped them learn more about their millennial customers and to gain new skills, particularly technology skills.

    As the New York Times piece notes, while reverse mentorship programs can yield major dividends, organizations still need to ensure that younger workers feel they are getting their own mentorship opportunities that will aid their careers.

    To learn more about how to create mentorship programs for millennial employees and other best practices for retaining young, early-tenure nurses, download our research report, "Win Millennials' Loyalty."

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