My Mentor Is A Millennial: On The Benefits Of Reverse Mentoring

It's called 'reverse mentoring,' where veteran executives get some raw feedback from younger workers. Can it help Latin American business loosen up and build for the future?

Millennial management
Millennial management
Daniela Arce

SANTIAGO — In Chile, Banco Santander has come up with a mortgage plan for millennials. You have more than 40 years to pay it off. It makes sense when millennials and now also their successor Generation Z are an important part of the workforce and their banking customers. Not surprisingly, it was the fruit of a meeting in 2019 between bank directors and young Santander professionals that explored social networks and other tech-related issues. It was an example of what's been dubbed "reverse mentoring" to show executives what the market expects.

When millennials state their hopes and needs to seasoned business hands, it can help executives take another look at a generation reputed to have contradictary ambitions and an aversion to commitment, and perhaps use them to revitalize their businesses. While mentors are usually expected to be experts in their fields, here it is the experts opening themselves to advice.

Reverse mentoring began some five years ago in Microsoft's offices in Austria, then Norway. There, the managing-director Michael Jacob and a 28-year-old sales executive began regularly exchanging ideas respectively in leadership and overall vision, and technology. The idea may also have come in part from the legendary General Electric boss Jack Welch who credited a young employee for teaching him what the Internet could do for his firm.

The boss is thought to have all the answers.

Isaías Sharon, executive director of the Chilean-based Smart Coach International Academy, says the practice of turning to young people for advice is slow to start in Latin America. Those firms eyeing reverse mentoring tend to also have a focus on their digital transformation and seeking a less top-down, "more innovative" management style.

Oscar Freigedo, head of the Savvy HR Consulting, cites examples in Argentina. "You see these initiatives in firms with technological roots," he says, though traditional economy firms like Dow or Unilever were also working on methodologies relating to "corporate culture, leadership, strategic vision, respect or diversity." Firms, he said, were moving toward "liquid modernity" where hierarchies disappear and roles become flexible following the mindset of future leaders.

The Chilean investment bank BTG Pactual began showing interest in reverse mentoring, after it was noted that younger employees were better at building horizontal, "two-way" relations at work. Other firms are waiting for a cultural change in a conservative country before using such mentoring among staff.

Horizontality on the horizon — Photo: BTG Pactual/Facebook

Luz Eugenia Mundaca, head of the Leadership and Coaching course at the Adolfo Ibáñez University in Chile, says senior executives have big egos and are used to giving orders. "You still have many vertical firms where the person in charge is very important. They are formal and the boss is thought to have all the answers." Reverse mentoring is "difficult to implement in those surroundings," she says, adding that older executives see the young as having short-term perspectives and not tolerating setbacks, which prompts them to ask what they could learn from them.

There must be affinity on both sides.

Mundaca believes firms must first change their views of "leadership and power, and increasingly become horizontal in their relations," to embrace reverse mentoring. A firm that decides to use it would typically pick among its most promising youngsters to mentor. Mundaca, who advises firms on reverse mentoring, says they are usually university graduates with digital know-how and good social and communication skills. There must be affinity on both sides, a willingness to learn on the executive's part and a shared view of objectives sought.

Ultimately, says Mundaca, both sides benefit from reverse mentoring. "The youngster benefits because they are introduced to the business and the industry, while the older executive feeds on the technological experience."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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