Reverse Mentoring can either be very effective or seriously problematic... Having worked on a number of Reverse Mentoring programmes I was keen to come together with Patrice Gordon (who I first met when she was leading a programme and taking part as a mentee herself) to explore how it can be done the right way.
Reverse mentoring can be done in a meaningful and deliberate way to achieve EDI outcomes, but if it is not managed properly it can cause more harm than good and can actually disengage, exclude and cause further inequality within your organisation.
Here are our 10 tips for getting it right...
1. Ensure psychological safety
A safe and brave space needs to exist in reverse mentoring relationships so that boundaries are maintained for the mentor. Equally most importantly, mentees need to be clear about their role and how to ensure the relationship isn’t too taxing on the mentor. Be proactive in exploring the boundaries required for mentees and mentors in advance of them taking part. This should be a core part of the induction process and supporting resources/materials.
2. Take on board the feedback
Ensure that the organisation is ready to take action from the insights gained, otherwise it will lead to further disenchantment with the affected population of employees and have the opposite effect. To really be a meaningful intervention, the feedback should be collated and explored in a transparent way.
3. There should be an independent person matching mentors with mentee
When searching for a reverse mentor, ask someone who has a pulse on the key spokespeople within the organisation to help you make the right match. This does not have to be someone in Human Resources -- it’s whoever knows you and your teams well. Because chemistry is really important. Also, pick Mentors who are not direct reports or even in your department, because it’s hard to request complete honesty from someone who you may also have to review at the end of the year! If you are in Finance, find someone creative in Marketing, or if you are in Engineering, find someone in Customer Service. This will ensure that you develop perspectives from outside of your immediate team…..different perspectives make better Leaders.
4. Beware of role reversion
Mentors have to remember that their insights as a mentor are actually more valuable to the organisation for this period of time. Therefore, it is important for the Mentees to be clear on their position in this relationship
5. Give credit where credit is due
When traditional mentors give advice, the mentee isn't really obligated to give credit. However, in reverse mentoring, where the mentee has far more power, accurate credit really counts. Find appropriate ways to give credit to mentors who take part - through awards or written internal/public recognition such as LinkedIn testimonials.
6. Recognise and reward mentors
The lessons mentors are sharing will help leaders navigate their roles more successfully and benefit your business so recognise this. Think of ways to recompense the mentors taking part - either through providing them time off in lieu of taking time out of their days, giving them awards and vouchers but ultimately considering their role as a mentor as a key competency that would put them ahead in promotion opportunities.
7. Realise that your leaders have a knowledge gap
Being empathetic to all colleagues and having inclusive leadership skills should be requirements of all leadership positions - it is not just a nice to have. Reverse mentoring programmes acknowledge this reality. Alongside reverse mentoring, ensure that leaders are evaluated based on their inclusive leadership capabilities, and that they take part in 360 degree feedback in order to ensure that people reaching your leadership levels truly have the values, behaviours and skills to occupy these positions.
8. Provide wellbeing support
Marginalised employees are often taking part in these programmes as mentors. Employers must recognise that although people take part in diversity and inclusion initiatives willingly, people who experience discrimination often feel obliged to take part in programmes in order to force change needed for themselves and their peers. It is likely that mentors will share traumatic experiences, or may even show trauma responses whilst taking part in the programme. Whilst leaders may not be equipped to respond during the mentoring sessions, programme managers should regularly check-in with mentors and have sources of support on hand.
Ensure any employee assistance programmes are suitable to the diverse needs of your mentors. It is also advisable to provide proactive workshops for mentors participating in the programme that explore topics such as trauma, wellbeing and navigating discrimination.
9. Continue to pay for EDI training
Reverse mentoring should not replace comprehensive training on EDI topics. It is unfair to expect your colleagues to upskill leaders for free. Whilst programmes may identify gaps in leaders’ understanding, this should inform training needs.
10. Beware of the limitations of using individual lived experiences
Mentors who take part in reverse mentoring are sharing their own lived experiences only - they cannot be expected to speak on behalf of their entire community. Reverse mentoring should take into consideration intersectionality and the range of perspectives and experiences people have within one community or characteristic.
This article was co-written with Patrice Gordon. Find out more about the reverse mentoring programmes we run, and get in touch to see how we can help you run an effective programme.