The Odd Couple In Today's Office: Millennials Reverse Mentor Baby Boomers

To keep up with the world of financial services, I find myself attending many conferences throughout the year. Naturally, some are better than others but I try to find at least one memorable idea from each that I can bring to my clients and readers. Recently, I was at women's financial services conference, sponsored by Investment News, and as usual, sitting not so quietly, fidgeting with my phone, answering emails, and tweeting. Multi-tasking is mission critical as an entrepreneur. I swear that I was listening the entire time!

So, it was after lunch, and I was nodding a bit, when I heard a man's voice. I looked up to see an all-female panel with one middle-aged white guy on the end. This caught my attention. He looked familiar (but don't "they" all?) so I glanced in my program to read it was Mark Tibergien, chief executive Of Pershing Advisor Solutions, with his "millennial mentor," Kayla Flaten. In a reversal of roles, Kayla mentors Mark, the program noted. She is 25 and he is 62. What the hell could she teach him, I wondered?

As I listened, Tibergien explained that there is an equal sharing of "knowledge" and "wisdom" between mentor and mentee. I was intrigued.

The term 'reverse mentor' was coined and first implemented by GE's Jack Welch in 1999 to help executives enter the Internet age. But Tibergien believes this kind of two-way sharing goes beyond its original intent and makes a statement about where vital intelligence comes from in business. He's always surrounded himself with people who were, on paper, smarter and better qualified than himself. In the past they were older guys, with more degrees and more experience, not fewer degrees and less experience. So the exchange with Kayla shows how much what is "smart" has changed for him. "She challenges me in a non-threatening way," Tibergien says.

The following week I sat down to lunch with Tibergien and Flaten, an account manager in Pershing Prime Services and the day-to-day contact for hedge fund and 40-act fund clients in prime brokerage. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that Flaten was not going to indulge my superficial sense of how 25 year-old women present themselves.

In fact, she was the most buttoned-up of the three of us, in her formal navy blue suit. I was wearing a leopard-print dress and Mark was wearing a casual dress shirt and slacks. Flaten was also devoid of piercings, tattoos or an asymmetrical haircut, nor does she dress in jeans and sneakers and hoodies. (Of course, this is a caricature, and the financial services industry is always at least three times more conservative than the rest of the business world, but you get the picture.)

As I was to discover, this is one of the points of the reverse mentorship program. Flaten and the other mentors help instruct Pershing executives about real flesh-and-blood Millennials so that they don't have to fall back on the cartoon version depicted by Hollywood or rely on their own children for insights.
Flaten says that the relationship has also helped her to get that what appears to be stiff in her superiors may actually just be an expression of business discipline. "Meetings with Mark have helped me to dismantle the various stereotypes of Baby Boomers and Millennials. We are really not that different and we need to stop thinking about it as an 'us versus them' conversation. It's a two-way street," she said.

One example she gave revolved around work-life balance and working from home (a popular preference of Millennials). Flaten told Tibergien that boomers assume that Millennials want to work from home so that they can sit in their pajamas all day. Tibergien's response, she said, was: "'That's great, but how do you measure productivity?' Which is a question that I had not necessarily thought about." This is a small example of how the program has begun to bridge the generations at Pershing.

Tibergien, in turn, says Flaten has coached him on his approach to social media. "When we first started, Kayla gave me a hard time about my social media presence. For example she pointed out that my picture on Twitter was an egg. Obviously that is the sign of a novice. She has also warned me about how I use Facebook--my humor can be a little 'twisted' sometimes and she cautioned me not to put things out there that can be misinterpreted, especially if it has a political spin."

As I listened to Tibergien and Flaten describe their roles in the mentorship, it jogged a memory from my own experience: when I first started working at Kelly Services, the temporary help company in 1986 , the senior level executives didn't know how to operate the newest of new technologies, then becoming ubiquitous, the WANG word processor. The WANG was replacing the typewriter. "We used to have the typing test and now we don't know what to do!" they would cry to me. And so I had to coach them in this newfangled computer. "I was that girl!" I said to Kayla. "I was you."

Just like everything else these days, old ideas come around full-circle. Gerry Tamburro, managing director of Pershing Prime Services, who created the reverse mentorship program, had his lightbulb moment when he was sitting in an executive committee meeting, and suddenly noticed that almost every single person around the conference table was white, male and of baby-boomer age. He had read repeatedly that an estimated three-quarters of the work force will be Millennials within 10 years, by Deloitte Consulting's reckoning. Tamburro felt Pershing needed to figure out ways to bridge generations at the firm, attract and retain talent, and promote innovation at the firm.

Tamburro chose Flaten and another millennial JamiLynn Cimino, to help him think about ways to do this, and after months of brainstorming they came up with the reverse mentorship program as a solution. Together they chose nine in-house Millennials as a beta group to mentor nine executive committee members. The first nine were chosen based on their open-mindedness, honesty, interest in participating in the program, their ability to articulate opinions and thoughts about the millennial generation, and their passion for giving back to the company. Six months later, the CEO and COO of Pershing agreed to expand the program to the entire executive committee of 20-plus members, an expansion that launched in July.

The mentors make up a Millennial Advisory Board that meets once a week to try to answer questions that the mentees have given them--such as, how do Millennials invest? How do they feel about the robo-advisor model? Why is there a shortage of millennial advisors?--and discuss good topics for their weekly meetings with the mentees. Those meetings--also weekly, also an hour long--are supposed to be like "safe zones," and to ensure that each side feels totally free to be honest with the other, the mentors do not report to their mentees, they cross business lines.

The reverse mentorship program's mixed cocktail of the old and established with contemporary and pioneering fits Pershing perfectly. Parent company BNY Mellon has a storied history in financial services: it was the first stock to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

But the company's culture -- as a big bank with a business-to-business focus -- has always been directed at innovation in function and not form. Tibergien says Pershing, which has no retail arm, sometimes has to battle the Mercedes Benz mentality. The German automaker makes engineering marvels but stoutly refused to include cup holders for the driver. Audi and BMW happily obliged executives who want to drive and drink coffee en route to work to the detriment of Mercedes' market share

By the urging of reverse mentors. Pershing is communicating differently with the consumer by being more succinct and using more human, less syllabic words. "MIllennials say: This is how I feel. It's a more visceral expression," Tibergien says.

In its roll-out of NetXInvestor, (how a consumer sees its account through NetX360) Pershing has gone so far as to create a button that allows a translation into baby boomer or Millennial -- with fonts, sizes and colors among the variables. Flaten also zeroed in on features on the screen and emphasized that Millennials would be receiving information by tablets and smartphones.

Though the program is very new, Pershing says it's already realizing performance gains. Employee engagement, as measured by annual surveys, is improving substantially after falling off right after 2008. Mentors have beta-tested new technology launches and their feedback was acted upon. The only real hitches, so far, have been scheduling problems, but those were resolved.

"The most significant impact this program has on Pershing is that it has reinvigorated our approach to product development, the client service experience, our attitude towards colleagues at all levels and our interactions with people not of our generation," said Tibergien. "It has resulted in an unusual camaraderie for a company of this size and a way to tap into other perspectives without being formal or constrained. That is hard to measure except in the energy it has seemed to generate."

At the end of the nine-month beta, 100% of the executive committee member participants agreed that they saw the value and wanted to continue the relationship. Tibergien wants his legacy to be a sustainable work force at Pershing, the ability to cultivate next generation talent from within--and to bring this culture to the advisors on Pershing's platform.

Ironically, one area Flaten has made little impact on Tibergien is social media. BNY doesn't allow Tibergien to have a corporate Twitter account so he basically tweets to personal contacts. Facebook, too, is a way he keeps up with friends. Mark and I are Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter. Neither of us is connected online to Kayla. But Mark, the employees of Pershing and its advisory firms, benefit every day as he has Kayla as his mentor in-real-life.