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The next level competitive advantage  

By David Osiri
26 August 2021   |   3:22 am
When Jack Welch became the chief executive of GE in 1981, its stock price was struggling. Its market capitalisation hovered around $14 billion. On his retirement two decades later, it stood at more than $410 billion.

When Jack Welch became the chief executive of GE in 1981, its stock price was struggling. Its market capitalisation hovered around $14 billion. On his retirement two decades later, it stood at more than $410 billion. The company’s revenue soared from around $28 billion to $170 billion over the same period. Like most of us, he was not a saint, but there are many things he got right as the leader of General Electrics. The balance sheets and the investors agree on that. In the early 1990s, the dot-com bubble started forming. Investors were throwing millions of dollars at all kinds of online businesses. The ‘experts’ speculated that these new internet models would win.

The brick-and-mortar companies would disappear!  Jack retired from General Electric in 2001 (end of the dot-com bubble) after 20 years as CEO. As the wave of the internet era swept through the globe in the 1990s, the dot-com bubbles began to burst. Amid changes brought by the internet, Jack saw an opportunity. The internet could help GE to reduce transaction costs by hundreds of millions a year. He proposed the automation of a long list of GE’s processes and transactions. Being a visionary leader, he foresaw the obstacle. The internet is young- a new ‘trick’ in the business world. How would the ‘old dogs’ in the organisation learn this new trick? A brilliant idea struck him; it was an ideal solution – the young ‘dogs’ who are fond of the new trick can teach the old ‘dogs’.

The concept is now referred to as reverse mentoring. Harvard Business Review defines reverse mentoring as pairing younger employees with executive team members to mentor them on various topics of strategic and cultural relevance. This is the approach Jack Welsh used to teach senior executives about the internet. The feat was possible because he understood the concept of the generational gap and how to bridge it. Jack was born in 1935. He belongs to the silent generation (people born between 1928-1945). The silent generation precedes the baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964).   The silent generation listened to vacuum tube radio. Families often gathered to listen to the home radio in the evening. Television became the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s. Most of the senior executives Jack worked with are most likely members of his generation. The internet was a ‘shock’ to them. Berners-Lee, the man that created the internet that we know today, is part of the baby boomers. But it was in the 1990s that the internet became accessible to many people.

In 2018, Pew Research decided to use 1996 as the last birth year for Millennials. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is a Millennial. Gen Z is those born from 1997 till date. Researchers use this kind of classification to analyse changes in views over time. The interaction of different formative experiences with generational lifecycle causes this change. For keen observers, there are gaps in generational perspectives and issues. The gap is an enormous challenge and opportunity, depending on how you view it. Anyone who understands a generation’s views can get their attention and loyalty. These views and issues that matters are of strategic and cultural relevance. Organisations that understand them and manage them well will win in the long run. This is the next-level competitive advantage.

The use of the internet is still relevant and strategic to the future of every organisation. Culture elements like food, entertainment, and fashion are dynamic and powerful. Organisations that understand their power and harness it is always ahead of the competition. One of the best ways to keep tabs on topics of strategic and cultural relevance (TOSCAR) is learning from those currently in the mix -the prevailing generation. The 60s, 70s, and even the 80s sure had good foods, music and fashion and people in love with them. The current generation and its cultural elements have its tribe too. In this present era, a 15 years old girl will most likely have a better grasp of the internet than a 51 years old man. The phone that has trending top 10 songs on its playlist most likely belongs to a young executive and not the CEO. The internet connects the digital world.

Cultural elements (including sports) connect and affects people at the emotional level. Organisations that leverage this cultural bond have money in the bank. Nations that understand and invest in these bonding cultural elements are never broke.  Premium entertainment and sports channels and betting outfits are riding the TOSCAR wave. Organisations need to learn from the prevailing ‘generational tribe’ to stay relevant. It is a sustainable growth and profitability strategy.

TOSCAR is the playground for ‘those in the know’ in a generation and ‘those that need to know’. Every organisation should build such grounds. It connects hearts connects and bridges generational gaps. A famous African says – You can only build a city with the young and the old’s collective wisdom. This proverb is more relevant now than before.  In this new decade, baby boomers will leave the workforce.  Generation X will get to retirement age. This shift will leave the Millennials and Generation Z as the prevailing generation. The next ten years is a golden opportunity for organisations that want to thrive in the future.  It is time to understand the views and issues of these dominant generations. Then follow up with an engagement plan.

The engagement should explore and build on their strength and unique perspective.  Generation Z, for example, is independent grow upon in a connected world. Many of them got their first mobile phones at about 10 years. They grow up playing with their parents’ phones and gadgets.  They are hyper-connected, and the smartphone is their preferred mode of communication. Such generation will get bored to death by PowerPoint screens and presentations. They are used to high-speed internet, and likely to be impatient. A typical Generation Z worker will not invest ten years of his life with any organisation. The gig economy offers them more freedom. The current COVID-19 pandemic had heightened their appetite for work at home arrangements, for organisations that are not ready to learn-bad news. For forward-thinking organisation, they have to no worries. They have put in place systems, processes and structures that are adaptable.  Reverse mentoring offers the opportunity to learn from the prevailing generation. And it’s no rocket science.

Reverse mentoring is an organic solution with lots of benefits and no side effects. Its benefits touch the individual and the organisation. It is an efficient tool for sharing knowledge. And use in creating engagement, developing leadership and, building intergenerational relations. It grows on mutual acceptance, creating a sense of belonging – a fundamental desire of most people.

When a non-techie pairs with a tech expert, the party with the experience gets an outlet to feel relevant. At the same time, the less experienced fellow receives the opportunity to be relevant and up-to-date. The experience provides a staying power that keeps the parties connected. And also remain committed to the organisation that offers the learning ground. It increases retention of millennials and Generation Z in an organisation. Reverse mentoring gives these prevailing generations the recognition they seek from top management. It can be a strategy to get them interested in the organisation’s initiative. The dominant generation is the forefront of cultural and technological change. Could you give them a driver seat? Since these issues matters to them, they will jump on it. It is no news we are in the digital age. They can plug in others. The prevailing generations grew up in the information technology revolution era. They have lots of digital skills that they can impart. Reverse mentoring births organisation where people from different generations can relate. The understanding and successful navigation of generational differences is a significant boost.

Unlocking the benefits of reverse mentoring begins with generational knowledge gap identification. Then the selection of the younger executive that could fill the gap can follow. There must be a commitment to the relationship. The senior executive should show commitment to the agreed mentoring sessions. Reverse mentoring is a new territory for most people; there will be challenges.

Thus, it requires mentoring support. The participants must stay focused. It is easy to blend reverse mentoring with shadowing and get distracted from the goal. Reverse mentoring and shadowing are excellent career development opportunities. But the best results come from focusing on one and ignoring others.

There is no doubt that reverse mentoring works. To embrace reverse mentoring, ignore cultural bias and sentiments. Knowledge is not an exclusive preserve of any person or group. Be determined to create the organisation of the future. Do not attempt to build the future from the debris of the past. Tap into the minds of the generation that is shaping the present and the future. That is the next-level competitive advantage that money cannot buy. It is free yet priceless. Be like Jack, and in the future, someone might praise you or even write about your visionary exploits.

Osiri, is a Mentorship Awareness Ambassador.