This article was first published in the July/August 2020 International edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

With technological progress and digital advances coming thick and fast, the pressure on every person in business to keep abreast and master digital skills is constant. ‘Reverse mentoring’ – where younger, more junior individuals share their knowledge with older, senior people – is increasingly seen as an effective way to improve these skills. This could be achieved through a formal internal programme or by individuals building their own informal relationships.

At the formal end of the spectrum, Stanbic Bank in Uganda, part of the Standard Bank of South Africa, has been running a six-month reverse mentoring programme for its board members. The move followed from a group-level digital transformation initiative. The reverse mentoring programme is designed to ensure all board members are digitally savvy enough to be able to fulfil their oversight roles properly. ‘Our directors were very enthusiastic about the initiative,’ says Japheth Katto FCCA, chairman of the board of Stanbic Bank, Uganda.

Stanbic’s chief executive and company secretary identified the key topics to be covered, based around the group’s digital strategy. These topics included the digital architecture of the organisation, regulatory frameworks, information security, customer transactions, onboarding and digital marketing. Mentors for each topic were identified with help of the bank’s human capital and digital teams – around 12 mentors in all. ‘Appropriate mentors are the ones with the knowledge, skills and understanding, and also the personal and communication skills to deal with the board members,’ Katto says. They are also typically younger personnel in middle management positions.

Twice a month, board members have completed one-to-one sessions lasting two hours with the relevant mentor for each topic. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, sessions were either face-to-face or run virtually for non-residential directors. After the outbreak, all sessions continued on a virtual basis.

Symbiotic relationship

‘I’m pleased with the way it’s working,’ Katto says. ‘It’s great for learning. It’s very open and informal, with a lot of discussions.’ The younger mentors are also gaining from the experience. ‘It’s become a symbiotic relationship,’ Katto adds. ‘It has demystified for them what being a board member is and that has given them more confidence.’

Young mentors typically agree that they benefit too. ‘Being exposed to higher management and understanding their perspective – being able to speak to someone who has a rapport with you, who can help you develop your ideas – plays an important role in self-development,’ says Danish Sange ACCA, a senior associate in accounting advisory at PWC in Dubai. Sange mentored a more senior colleague as part of a digitisation initiative in the firm a couple of years ago. Participants were matched up based on their interests. ‘I wanted to talk about digitisation and the future of finance,’ Sange says. The PwC director he was matched with wanted to learn about digital finance. The formal programme ran for about three months, involving weekly meetings, but Sange and the director developed an ongoing relationship and still talk regularly.

Reverse mentoring needn’t only happen through formal initiatives. Based in Brisbane, Australia, Heather Smith FCCA, an adviser, speaker and expert in accounting apps and cloud solutions, is informally mentored by a number of young people. She believes she has been able to stay ‘ahead of the technology curve’ by ‘listening to young people and hearing what they are using, and how they are using it’. She says: ‘Receiving mentoring from someone younger than yourself can help you see the world through their eyes and help in communicating with their generation, embracing emerging technology and understanding social media platforms.’

Find your mentor

Potential mentors can be encountered in different ways – perhaps at a conference. Smith suggests making contact during water cooler moments or in breakout areas. ‘Or if you see someone posting something of interest on social media, you may reach out to them and start a conversation,’ she says.

Aged 33, Candice Czeremuszkin FCCA, a partner at Moore Cayman in the Cayman Islands, is the youngest member of her firm’s partnership. She informally mentors a number of people substantially older than herself, including a senior manager in her firm and individuals at external companies. From a digital perspective, she encourages these older individuals to see the benefits of cloud-based apps and storage, as opposed to more traditional audit tools, and to generally explore new technologies. ‘It’s about picking out where we see people or companies going with technology and what we could leverage,’ Czeremuszkin says.

She believes reverse mentoring can help firms thrive by tapping into the insights of younger individuals. ‘The future of our business model depends on it,’ she says. For example, she credits some younger members of her team with spotting early the disruption Covid-19 could cause to normal working. ‘They came up and said, things aren’t looking so great, we need more IT equipment at home,’ she recalls. As a result, her team was able to make a ‘seamless transition’ to home working when needed.

Chioma Ogamba ACCA, a senior business analyst with consulting firm CGI in Alberta, Canada, is just 29. Her mentees are typically people moving to Canada and older than she is. ‘Try not to get intimidated with the age difference,’ she advises other potential young mentors. ‘If someone thinks you can mentor them, you have something they need. You are bringing value to that person and it’s a value exchange, because you can learn something from them too.’

Ogamba believes more organisations could use reverse mentoring to develop digital skills. ‘Some of us grew up with technology, so it’s easy for us to play around with it,’ she says. ‘Older persons who are not so tech savvy should be open to listening to younger ones. It’s not to do with age, but what this person can teach you. It’s an approach that can benefit both individual and company.’

Sarah Perrin, journalist