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Reverse Mentoring: Generation Y coaches Baby Boomers

A company's innovative strength is strongly linked to the successful mix of generations among its employees. In an effort to encourage this, Credit Suisse has launched a promising project known as Reverse Mentoring.

In a corner of the Talackerbar in the Zurich business district, two men, one younger and one older, are sitting face to face in comfortable, velvet retro chairs and having an animated discussion. They've been there for a while; their empty plates have been cleared away and the two espresso cups on the thin-legged table are almost empty. Here, in the evenings, the light is dimmed and the music loud; but now, in the early afternoon when most young bankers are back at their desks, it's easy to have a conversation. Matching the vintage decor and following Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens' Father and Son can be heard coming from the loudspeakers.

Orderliness in the Social Media Chaos

Unlike in the song, however, the older man – 53-year-old Daniel Niggli – does not have words of wisdom for 28-year-old René Schrackmann. Actually, it's just the opposite, since Niggli and Schrackmann, both Credit Suisse employees, are participating in their employer's Reverse Mentoring project. "Normally, these programs are about someone with a certain seniority taking a younger person under their wing. Here, it's the other way around," explains Schrackmann. What do they talk about, and on what topics does the younger man advise the older one? "With us, it's the typical topics in which generation Y is usually more advanced than the baby boomers. Social media was my big topic, and I've learned a lot from René about this over the past few months. This also extended to time management and multi-tasking – I was generally interested in knowing someone from that generation better. With no children of my own, I don't have that connection," says Niggli. Specifically, Niggli wanted an overview of the different social media platforms. He admits: "I was relieved to find out that even young people don't consider everything important and don't participate in everything." Schrackmann seconds that sentiment: "The trick is to be selective." Thus, one of the tasks that Niggli must complete before the end of the mentoring project is to create both a Linkedin and a Xing account – Schrackmann is otherwise threatening not to dine out with him anymore. The two also came to the conclusion that it would make sense to replace Niggli's older smartphone with a more modern device, in order to use the convenient Whatsapp tool, for instance.

Bridging Generations to More Innovation

"IT topics are, at least in the beginning, at the forefront for most mentoring pairs," confirms Paula Langer, who is responsible for the Reverse Mentoring program at Credit Suisse. The catalyst for the program developed by Diversity and Inclusion, and being followed with great interest at home and abroad, was a presentation in 2010 by Heike Bruch, a professor from St. Gallen University. She showed that the innovative strength of mixed-generation teams in companies with good demography management is massively superior to those where there is no generational bridging. Langer comments: "Especially for very large companies, which quickly become perceived as sluggish, remaining innovative is a challenge. If, through this program, we can help increase our innovative strength, we are doing a significant favor to our employees and clients." The program started in 2010/11 as a pilot project, and its first official cycle just ended in February 2015. It includes a few fixed points, such as a kick-off meeting at the beginning, followed by a workshop with all the participants and another, smaller workshop midway through the program where the generations are separate. The program ends with a joint wrap-up event.

Proven and Disproven Stereotypes

"At the beginning I found the workshop very inspiring. We were very active and in motion, we discussed, moderated, and listened to each other," remembers Schrackmann. "One of the goals was to take a closer look at the sources of friction between Generation Y and the baby boomers. Stereotypes were provoked, such as the twenty-something who, if possible, changes jobs every two months, or the senior citizen who has never used the internet. There is, however, usually a kernel of truth in most stereotypes," adds Schrackmann. Quite early in the course of their conversations, Niggli and Schrackmann stopped using the guidelines they had received in the beginning, even though both insist these tips are very good. In their case, conversation came naturally. When asked where they meet for their chats, they both burst into laughter. "This is one instance where the generational gap was deeply felt," explains Niggli. The first suggestion came from him, the older man. That time, they met in the distinguished, quiet Simplon Bar. Since then, they always take turns picking the venue and enjoy discovering new places: "I would have never thought of the Talackerbar on my own, but the fact is that we can have a good conversation anywhere, provided the volume is not too loud," says Niggli with a smile. Schrackmann nods and adds: "In our case, the matching worked very well; and even though I'm actually the mentor, mentoring often goes in both directions. Daniel has been at Credit Suisse for 35 years – it's fascinating to see such a career laid out before me and to reflect on how it matches my own plans for the future, along with his opinion of it all."

One-Way Street where Oncoming Traffic is Allowed

Another Reverse Mentoring pair is also experiencing the program as a mutual give and take: 50-year-old Thorsten Düser and his 29-year-old mentor, Nesret Ljimani. However, the mentoring relationship of these two is different to that of Niggli and Schrackmann. Thanks to his two grown-up daughters and his own considerable curiosity, Thorsten Düser is up to speed when it comes to social media and IT topics. Nonetheless, there is still plenty to talk about for the two men from different generations. Düser explains: "The relationship between Nesret and me is a business partnership that enables us both to acquire valuable new contacts and create new business ideas." Traditional mentoring, according to Düser, can be compared to a one-way street. "Reverse Mentoring, on the other hand, is more like a one-way street where oncoming traffic is allowed." Nesret Ljimani can only agree: "Thorsten and I were just talking about a joint project with a British client of mine; we already have ideas for future collaborations and, last but not least, we get along very well on a personal level – so there is no reason not to continue the relationship after the official end of the project."

Rejuvenating One's Own Network

Niggli also highlights the networking aspect: "In my 35 years at Credit Suisse, I've built an extensive network, but a lot of it has aged with me. I would welcome more opportunities to rejuvenate my own network." Both Niggli and Schrackmann are convinced that they will continue their generational partnership beyond the official program. The main goal of Reverse Mentoring, bridging the gap between generations, was clearly more than reached in this case. Whether the bank's innovative strength was increased as well is somewhat more difficult to measure, but Paula Langer draws a satisfying conclusion: "The feedback is consistently very positive; this is sure to have some effect." The bridges do seem to be very stable and, starting in summer 2015, more will be added with the next cycle.