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?

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.

The first thing they are told, Parker said, is "this is a two-way street. We try to break down the idea that a mentor is an all-knowing person who is there to pass [knowledge] down to a mentee."

In one of the first sessions, the company's chief financial officer took part. He found it "so refreshing to have someone outside of his peer group," Parker said. He began to bounce management's ideas off the junior-level employee, asking what that worker or his peers might think. Then the CFO would take the information back to his peers.

In general, the programs have also helped management learn a little bit about how a different generation wants to be managed, Shioji said. "The younger employees want things very different from what we wanted," she said. "They want more choices. . . . Work-life balance is very important to them. Having choices is very important to them. That's helping us . . . figure it out."

What many people don't realize, said Diane Thielfoldt, founder of the Learning Cafe, which trains companies on intergenerational issues, is that what they think is bad management actually can be a generational difference. So reverse mentoring can help both sides of the generational equation.

"A Gen Xer will say, 'My manager is so overbearing' and . . . assumes the manager needs management training. When, in fact, they may be a great leader used to staying in close contact," Thielfoldt said.

So, more than just learning about how to make the business run better, those who participate in reverse mentoring programs learn how to better manage one another. It all may seem like something that could be accomplished with a few more conversations and intermingling of the various levels of employees. But Shioji, for instance, said it was the program that got her out of her office and into the field, where she could learn what challenges face her employees, and how she might be able to help ease those challenges.

"When you are a sales specialist, things are very different for you versus those in management positions," Shioji said. "Here we are, sitting around making all these decisions. And what we want, or see as important, is totally different from what our workforce wants."

Hopefully, that won't be the case for long.

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