Reverse mentoring: A unique approach to rejuvenating your IT culture

Aflac is pairing young apprentices with IT veterans to teach the vets new tech — and to breathe life into the insurer’s ability to deliver digital services in an agile way.

By Clint Boulton
June 7, 2017

She was certain that the agile methodology would help galvanize software development and support Aflac’s efforts to provide customers with superior insurance services. But to achieve this Davis realized she needed to shift the cultural mindset of a department that had become set in its ways and that could benefit from new blood and training. She also needed to lure more staff to replace retirees. “I need a lot more apprentices coming in than I need retirees going out,” Davis said.

Borrowing from reverse mentoring practices she participated in while working as CIO of General Electric years ago, Davis set up a program in which apprentices work with members of her IT team in two-year rotations. Apprentices shuttle from team to team every few months to get a feel for the nuances of Aflac’s IT roles, operations and culture.

Candidates include recent college graduates and workers looking to “reboot their careers,” said Matt Lynn, resource manager in Davis’ department who runs the program. Lynn said that the placement rate for apprentices within Aflac is 93 percent.


New staff teaches older staff new tricks

Aflac apprentices, many of whom grew up as smartphones, mobile applications and social media became ubiquitous, school the veterans on the latest digital tools. The structure of the apprenticeship system also allows younger employees to create connections with multiple senior leaders, rather than reporting to one boss, which is typical in most corporate hierarchies.

“You can talk to anyone you want at any time about anything,” Davis said. “It’s a great way to put stickiness on a new person coming in and it’s helped senior people understand what is of interest to the younger generation.”

That was certainly the case for Wesley Eugene, Davis’ chief of staff, who said one of his apprentice mentors taught him about applications such as TripIt, a travel itinerary planner, and advised him to be more active on social media, helping Eugene graduate from being a Twitter “tweet lurker” to active tweeting. “It’s getting my context to shift more digitally as I interact with them,” Eugene said. “Frankly, they just have a different view of the world.”

Successful apprentices create something of a desirable problem: Demand is so high that before they are done with a rotation they’ve got multiple managers who want to hire them. Davis said this forces managers to raise their game to be the kind of leaders for whom apprentices strive to work.

While creating a mentee-mentor buddy system is paying dividends on the knowledge-sharing front, Davis is also working through the mechanics of getting traditional IT workers out of their waterfall silos and buddying up with the business.

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