Trainees train the C-Suite

Sray Agarwal | July, 2012

Lord Krishna in Mahabharata is a supreme exemplar of reverse mentoring. Even when he was in his adolescence, he attracted more influential adherence from the people who were twice or even thrice his age. With regards to Pandavas, he used to ease off their hardships and was the source of motivation and guidance. Yudhishtir who was elder to Krishna used to revere him like his guru and used to chart guidance from him that determined his path to eventual success. As it emerged in Mahabharata, Krishna was the source of salvation for people (including the grand uncle of the Pandavas as well as the Kuravas, Vishma) much senior to him, which if replicated in modern management techniques, can spell wonder for the corporations.
As said in the movie ‘Man on a Ledge’, “we don't go to work. We go to war!” Corporate world today is not less than a cut-throat battle field where for survival one needs to have a new and seminal strategy every moment. For this one not only needs a Krishna for him but for the entire organization. Not only West, but even Indian companies like Bharti, Goodrej and many more are recruiting and falling back on mentors and coaches for developing survival strategies and above all, to prevent themselves from getting obsolete!
So how did this trend of coaching the C-suite start? In modern corporate world, it was Jack Welch, who introduced the idea of CEO coaching in GE during his stint as the CEO of the company. In GE, Jack Welch wanted his 500 top level executives to get rid of old school of thoughts and adopt new management styles. He focused on imbibing technology in management and coached them to foresee the usage of technology in the company. Interestingly, Jack recruited young people (in their 20s) as coaches for his top level grey-haired management team and also hired one so that he could learn to surf the web. Jack Welch not only broke the conventional method of coaching but also popularised the concept of reverse mentoring, by introducing younger coach/mentor to his top management.
A Harvard Business working paper titled, ‘What an Executive Coach Can Do for You’ states that, “It might seem that way at some organizations, at least to the untrained eye. IBM has more than sixty certified coaches among its ranks. Scores of other major companies have made coaching a core part of executive development. The belief is that, under the right circumstances, one-on-one interaction with an objective third party can provide a focus that other forms of organisational support simply cannot.” 
Rocky Pimentel, Senior Vice-President of WebTV Networks Inc. once coached Eric Ludwig, Vice-President of Instill while other senior member of Instill went to professors of Kellogg Graduate School of Management CEO of Virage Inc. to learn new tactic of business.
Coaching today is just not seen as an important part of human resource management but is taken more as an investment! Today companies can literally calculate the ROI on coaching. Studies show that companies like GE, Goldman Sachs, Google and many others spends over a billion dollar annually on C-suite coaching. So what finally are the returns? Shockingly, the ROI on coaching is sometimes (or rather, most of the time) more than ROI on the products a company sells! A global survey by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Association Resource center concluded that “the mean ROI for companies investing in coaching was 7 times the initial investment, with over a quarter reporting an ROI of 10 to 49 times.” Another paper titled, “Maximizing the Impact of Executive Coaching: Behavioral Change, Organizational Outcomes, and Return on Investment” by Joy McGovern, Michael Lindemann, Monica Vergara, Stacey Murphy, Linda Barker, and Rodney Warrenfeltz went on proving that ROI is averaged nearly to $100,000 or 5.7 times the initial investment in coaching and stated in a few cases it was as high as $1 million, $5 million, or even $25 million!
Interestingly, reverse mentoring has become a win-win situation. For instance, when Navdeep Manaktala, head, services sales at Nokia, mentored his senior, Nikhil Mathur, head of strategy planning, and sought insights about the new services that Nokia is planning to offer, the former latently asked all his queries without even making his trainee (his senior) realise the same. Similarly, Sanjay Kapoor, deputy CEO, Bharti Airtel never fails to spend time with his mentor. He, every week over a cup of coffee meet company's young employees to understand the new physiology and taste of the market. Bharti is on a drive to unearth ideas and coaching from the India’s youth bulge, which comprises 560 million people under the age of 25. The conglomerate has opened the door for the young and dynamic folks straight into the Sanjay Kapoor’s 7th floor suite at Gurgaon’s towering block! A novel idea indeed, of reverse mentoring into the corridors of Bharti’s top management.
Today, C-Suite members are keeping their ego at the bay and are proactively embracing reverse mentoring and coaching. Some of the CXOs have recruited external coaches while some find it convenient to have a word of advice (regularly) from their own juniors. This in turn not only breaks the hierarchy but also the top management thoughts trickle down directly to the lower and middle management. Above all, it helps in breaking the glass door that used to be, once, like a wall between the senior and the lower management.