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Amy Joyce: Life at Work

Busting Out of Peer-to-Peer Networks

Executives Meet and Learn From Employees in Reverse Mentoring Programs

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page F06

It is so easy for executives to sit in an office and make decisions about people and the company, while they interact solely with their own high-up peers.

Easy, yes. But there are obvious downsides to that: How does upper management decide which offices to close, which people to partner up, which new rules to put in place, if they aren't out there listening to the frontline people those decisions will affect? Aren't those management types just out of touch?

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Some companies believe this is the case and are trying to remedy the situation by creating reverse mentoring programs. After all, even senior management may have a thing or two to learn. Many good executives admit that themselves.

Jan Shioji is one of them. As director of pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca's Dallas regional offices, she started a reverse mentorship program early this year. She did it because she spends most of her days in the office and in meetings, and she admits that she was out of touch with the people who worked for her, people who were representing the company in public.

Shioji and the other directors had been discussing how to attract, retain and develop talent. What it all came down to was if "we want to continue to build leadership, we need to reach out to folks in the field," she said.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but think about it: How many upper-level managers are out of the office, talking to lower-level employees and fishing for input from those workers? Hard to do, no doubt, when there's a company to run. Which is partly why organizations are making an official go of reverse mentoring. Given a formal program to follow, higher-ups get out of the office and are forced to interact in new ways.

Shioji, for instance, talks to her mentoring partner every other week. He tells her what his challenges are as a representative selling AstraZeneca's drugs, bounces ideas off her, and tells her how he deals with his own direct reports, she said. "They can flag up to us what the physicians need in their community. We couldn't tell that on a regional level."

Because the program is so new, the results are preliminary, Shioji said. But as the company begins to assess the program, she said, she has one thing to say: "I've learned a lot."

MFS Investment Management of Boston started its reverse mentoring program in early 2002. A new group of partners starts every six months, but most of the participants have continued to mentor each other after their six months are up, said Suzan Parker, assistant vice president and senior learning and development consultant.

The worker bees are matched to higher-ups after an application process in which the junior workers say what they hope to accomplish. Some want to gain exposure to senior management. Others want to build management skills, while many hope to be matched with someone in a different department so they can understand other sides of the business.

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