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Reverse Mentoring is All About Screwing in the Lightbulb before Flipping the Switch

May 12, 2010

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The following is a guest post by Shala Byers.  Shala is the creator of Booz Allen’s Reverse Mentoring Program and a good friend of mine.  I asked her to write a post on the reverse mentoring program that she started last year and that I’m working with her on now to scale across our firm.

Image courtesy of Flickr user remography

When I first started my foray into Social Media there were two kinds of people—those who proselytized Web 2.0 and those who approached it with the skepticism of an instant weight loss pill—  “This looks too easy…it can’t be this easy.”  Turns out, Web 2.0 IS that easy… mechanically; the concept of integrating it into ones daily routine, however, tends to be the hold up.

I actively avoided Twitter, for example, because I didn’t see the purpose.   Early adopters who had been using it for quite a while told me to get on and just start tweeting.  Again, the problem here wasn’t the logistics—it is easy enough to sign up for a new website account.  My trouble came from the “why” and the “how” questions.  WHY am I doing this?  WHY do they need to know what I am eating for lunch?  HOW am I supposed to act on this website?  Essentially, my early adopter friends, while well intentioned, were essentially trying to “flip the switch” to turn on the Social Media light without screwing in the bulb to begin with.

I needed context; I needed to be walked through it.  I needed someone to attach the light bulb for me.

After spending ample time with some of our social media champions, I started to see the benefits of how person-to-person sessions effectively fill this gap in my understanding.  After just a few sessions, and a little encouragement, I not only understood how to use social media, I was able to understand how to leverage them to benefit my clients.

This “light bulb” discovery led me to the second step in my social media adventure—creating a program that would do the same thing for others on a massive scale (20,000+ employee company).  I realized that we needed a program that would connect social media “experts” with those who wanted and needed to stay on the pulse of client technology.

We needed a reverse mentoring program.  You may have heard of the term “reverse mentoring”— an alternative method of learning where the seniors in an organization become the mentees and junior staff serving as the mentors.

While this concept had been developed at other organizations before, I knew Booz Allen’s program would have to be a little different to account for all 20,000+ employees.  I discovered that this kind of program wasn’t just needed at the senior level though – everyone needed to understand social media for it to become integrated in the way we operate.  We needed to identify a way to make social media relevant across dozens of skillsets, markets, and teams across the firm.   My goal, essentially, was to deploy a number of social media mentors throughout different teams to screw in the “social media lightbulbs” and help flip the switch for these people.  And I did this with the help of the co-program lead who I was lucky enough to rope in, Jeff Mrowka.

Over the course of the past year, this Reverse Mentoring team has worked tirelessly to create a program that would better equip our senior leadership to handle the ever-changing world of social media.  We knew that a Pilot Program would help us work through any potential kinks.  That’s why we officially launched the Social Media Mentoring Pilot Program in November 2009 with six Vice Presidents and several other senior leaders on board as participants, paired with four mentors.

Unsurprisingly, their conversations started out with questions about how to create a user name and click through each site.  What the sessions evolved into is what made the pilot even more interesting than we could have ever imagined:

  1. Brainstorming Sessions:  The Social Media Mentoring hour often evolved into a full-on brainstorming hour.  What we found out was that senior leadership in the firm is often so focused on their market or area of expertise that they seldom get a chance to sit around the table with their peers to brainstorm.   They benefited as much from hearing from their mentors as they did from speaking with one another.
  2. Client Offerings: Social Media Mentoring sessions provided an opportunity for junior staff to showcase client capabilities they were developing as a way to add value to their existing projects.  It afforded our leadership a time and place to sit and connect the dots regarding how they could harness these tools for existing and future issues.

So what is the way ahead?  The program has been a resounding success.  Participants not only understand the concepts, but are actively deploying these solutions within their project teams. Demand among our senior leadership has begun to outstrip supply so finding and developing even more mentors is one of our top priorities.

In developing the After Action Report for our little pilot program, we have to answer the question – “what do these brainstorming sessions ultimately do for us? For the mentees?  For the mentors?  And lastly, what’s the next step to scaling this program to a massive organization?  We’re going to have to start shipping in a lot of lightbulbs…

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