From the June 2015 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

The Benefits of Reverse Mentorship

We can learn more from our younger employees than we might expect

To grow in this industry may require the hopeful view of youth, not the jaundiced perspective of experience. (Illustration: Michael Austin/The Ispot.com) To grow in this industry may require the hopeful view of youth, not the jaundiced perspective of experience. (Illustration: Michael Austin/The Ispot.com)

Age sometimes begets hubris, a state of exaggerated self-confidence based on the belief that one has seen it all. As the abridged quote from Proverbs says, “Pride goeth before a fall.”

While history and experience help in evaluating our circumstances, neither can effectively predict what the future may bring. Those who make their driving decisions while looking in the rear view mirror find this fact challenging.

Pause for a moment to think about what has changed in financial services in the last 20 years: a massive shift away from large employer-based financial services companies to independent business models; 15% fewer financial advisors than there were in 2008; an increasing propensity to serve clients by charging fees versus commissions; interest rates holding near zero for a very long time; and the average age of financial professionals creeping closer to what our parents considered the retirement threshold. Add to these factors the threat of consolidation, robo-advice and over-regulation. The list of changes goes on and on. There is no denying that our industry is navigating to a place unseen by the most wizened veterans.

Accumulated wisdom helps us process facts, but the circumstances of our current world may require the hopeful view of youth rather than the jaundiced perspective of experience. Over the next 10 years, we will see more clients and staff born after 1985, an increased use of technology to interact with others and to manage our firms, and further transparency in how we conduct our business due to regulation and access.

The optimal management strategy considers multiple points of view. Successful business plans are not one-dimensional. We have an opportunity to tap into the insight that younger employees can provide based on the way in which they live, work and consume information.

One way in which we at Pershing have begun to elicit new perspectives is with our reverse mentoring program, wherein we pair millennial employees with members of our executive committee. While the idea of reverse mentoring has been around for years, the application of the concept to our company was developed by my partner Gerry Tamburro and two of his millennial employees in Pershing Prime Services, Kayla Flaten and Jamilynn Cimino.

Kayla was my reverse mentor for the past two years, and now I have a new mentor, Ian Keller, who not only works in a different part of the company, just as Kayla does, but lives in a different state. This situation reflects a new reality in which associates frequently work remotely from each other and must find effective ways to communicate.

My initial goals with the reverse mentoring program were to become more proficient with technology and more informed as to the power of social media. This initiative goes beyond technology, however. I now realize that my most valuable insights relate to how I interact with younger employees, how I communicate and what implications the rapidly changing trends have for our business. This program has been one of the most profound learning experiences I have ever had. It takes a point of view critical to our future, and systematically informs and challenges the ways I think, act and resolve problems.

Some folks outside our business say their children do the same thing for them, and no doubt that is true. The dynamics of kids and parents differ from those of mentor and mentee, however—and this unique relationship empowers our reverse mentoring program.

The task force behind the reverse mentoring program found several elements critical in the success of our approach:

  • The reverse mentor should not have a direct reporting relationship to the mentee.

  • Both parties should agree on whether they prefer an agenda or a more ad hoc approach to discussion; resolve this up front to ensure compatibility.

  • Meetings should be scheduled on a regular basis.

  • Rather than limiting the dialogue to the schedule, insights and information should be shared as they occur.

  • Each party should give and receive constructive feedback and challenge the other.

  • If the relationship isn't clicking, either party has the right to call it quits.

  • Organizational hierarchy should be left outside the door; collaborate as equal learning partners.

  • Both parties should be explicit about maintaining and respecting confidentiality.

The initial plan called for the mentor/mentee relationship to last for one year. In some cases, the connections are so strong that they continue beyond that, but we also find it healthy and constructive to switch out of those relationships and introduce new reverse mentors.

Our reverse mentoring program has become known in the financial services industry, prompting a number of advisors to inquire as to how the idea could be applied within their businesses, particularly small firms where the dynamics may be a bit more awkward. To achieve the same success that members of our executive committee have enjoyed with this initiative, here is a plan of action for advisors to consider implementing:

  • Either through study groups, professional or industry associations or community connections, organize an effort with a group of similar firms who have millennial employees. The number of participants should be manageable at first so you can better evaluate the impact.

  • Develop criteria for millennials who would be best suited to serve in the role of mentor and nominate them for this project. Criteria should include communication skills, job performance, listening ability and intellectual curiosity.

  • Mutually agree to assign mentors to mentees in the most compatible pairings.

  • Mentors and mentees should agree on a set of goals and continue to refer back to these goals as the relationship builds.

  • The group collectively should create a list of possible topics for future agendas to boost the dialogue.

  • Reverse mentors should meet monthly to discuss issues and share ideas. Stress the need to keep mentee information confidential. This relationship requires a leap of faith, but one of the criteria for selecting a mentor is your level of trust and confidence in the individual.

Those who lead a team or manage a company have a responsibility to reflect on multiple perspectives. This is not to suggest that consensus building is superior to decisiveness, but taking the time to consider other points of view typically results in a better outcome. A sharp question from a younger person, asking why things are done a certain way, has the ability to pop the most inflated ego.

The reverse mentoring program provides an opportunity to learn from others with whom you might not normally interact at such a deep level. This collaboration has the potential to deliver insight on matters of critical importance to your future clients as well as your future employees and partners. These relationships also build bonds within the firm and help train a new generation of advisors in key practices.

Our reverse mentors say they benefit from the program as well, learning valuable leadership and client engagement skills and gaining in confidence—all contributing to their own success and the success of the firm.

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