Thirty years ago, there wasn’t as much a person entering the workforce could teach their manager. They may have brought experiences with new research methodologies or technologies they used in the university setting. However at that time, only a select few were regularly using computers and cell phones were not in everyone’s pocket, so in that regard, new hires were more than likely at a similar level as their manager. An established manager, on the other hand, knew the company, the role, the market, and industry dynamics, so there was much wisdom they could impart to new professionals joining their team.
Fast forward to today and the landscape is entirely different across all industries, including the food industry. For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workforce—traditionalists, baby boomers, generation X, generation Y (millennials), and generation Z. Each of these generations have unique approaches to work, are motivated differently, and bring different skillsets to the table, particularly when it comes to the use of technology.
Advancing diversity and inclusion (D&I) is core to the values of many companies in the food industry, including global flavors and fragrances company IFF. IFF’s global D&I steering team, comprised of employees from all levels within the organization, recognized a need to bridge the generation gap, citing a desire to have a more genuine conversation around generational diversity in their workforce.
As a result, the steering team recommended creating a reverse mentoring program called Perspectives. Piloted in 2019, the Perspectives program paired each of IFF’s executive committee members with a millennial mentor. Among the goals was to expose the senior executives to views on technology, thought processes, and what’s important to younger generations, while giving millennials a chance to develop relationships with company leaders.
Human resources worked with their global business partners to identify high-performing millennials who could potentially serve as mentors. The millennial participants needed to be digital natives who regularly used social media. They also had to be in a different reporting line from the executive they were being paired with. For example, the chief information officer could not be paired with a millennial who works in IT; however, a flavorist would be a suitable pairing.
Once selected, the millennial mentors completed a two-day workshop to give them the tools they needed to successfully fulfill their role and worked with the D&I steering team to design the program. As part of the program design, the group outlined what they were trying to achieve and what success looked like. They also crafted a curriculum they could draw on, if needed.
Each pairing was responsible for running their own meetings and as long as the conversations were constructive and both sides were getting value, there were no specific requirements on what they should cover. Many of the conversations were technology focused, while others covered topics such as how best to communicate with younger employees. In some instances, the executive mentees even spent time shadowing their mentor to learn more about their day-to-day roles and working environment.
The mentors have enjoyed the exposure to senior leaders and have gotten a lot out of the program.
“As a young flavorist, getting the chance to closely observe the ways of working of our executive committee at the beginning of my career is very inspiring,” said Na Yue, an associate flavorist at IFF who serves as a reverse mentor to IFF’s EVP of Operations Francisco Fortanet. “Being a reverse mentor, I aim to share the energy and spirit of millennials with him. We have talked about diverse topics, found many similarities, and dispelled myths about millennials. It has been a great experience and I truly believe this program provides a positive impact for both mentor and mentee, which also helps IFF become stronger on its diversity and inclusion strategy.”
The mentees have also been incredibly positive about the program. They have made an effort to approach the conversations as individuals, not a title. They have also expressed an appreciation for the chance to periodically step away from their normal responsibilities for an hour and have a thought-provoking conversation that opens their minds to different perspectives.
“One thing I truly valued was the fact that my mentor would start every session with so much passion and energy saying: ‘Susana, what are we going to learn today?’,” said Susana Suarez, IFF’s EVP, CHRO, who was mentored by James Finnegan. “In our last session, we agreed that if our actions inspired each other to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, than this mentoring relationship really worked. He was a true reverse mentor and I am glad to have gained so much from him.”
Employees on both sides of the pairings have found immense value in the experience, so much so, that many are planning to continue their relationship even after the pilot concludes. IFF is also planning to roll the program out to the next level of the organization later in this year.
The company says the reverse mentoring program pilot is exceeding expectations and recommends it to other food companies seeking to embrace the generational diversity of its workforce.
Author: Eric Schneider
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