Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) has become a non-negotiable priority for businesses. But while many are seeking to draw a line in the sand, we need initiatives like reverse mentoring to help us address the micro inequalities that we might otherwise overlook.
How do senior leaders become aware of unnoticed issues in an organisational system? We are in conversation with TPC Leadership UK Partner Hilary Harvey, who is helping us to unpack how senior leaders can respond to D&I issues.
Reverse mentoring, Hilary says, can help shine a light on issues that are invisible to those who don’t have direct experience of them. When it was first practiced, reverse mentoring was used by organisations to keep their more senior people well versed in new technological tools and ways of working. Now though, for many businesses, it is becoming an important D&I strategy.
See beyond the senior bubble
“Everyone lives naturally from their own lived experience,” says Hilary. “It’s only when we get feedback that we learn to reflect and consider what we could do differently.”
In the NHS, Hilary is currently helping to run reverse and reciprocal mentoring programmes. These partner senior staff – who tend to be older white males – with junior mentors who likely (though not always) come from a different background or generation. The senior mentees then have the opportunity to see into a viewpoint beyond their own.
Statistically in the NHS, the numbers speak loudly that the representation is not there at senior levels. So, Hilary says, there’s a very clear business case for this reverse mentoring work.
Functionally, it can help a senior leader to understand the lived experience of an ambulance driver, or a junior finance officer, or a nurse on a mental health ward. But it can also help them to understand the lived experience of those who come from an ethnic background: to learn what is working well, what is problematic, what patients say to them, and how they feel in terms of their opportunities for career progression.
“It takes a lot of courage on both sides,” says Hilary. “It takes courage for the senior leader to acknowledge they live in a bubble. And it takes courage for the junior staff to speak their truth and stand in their authority as the mentors.”
Make reverse mentoring robust
When creating a reverse mentoring programme, you can’t simply put pairs of people together and let them get on with it. To do reverse mentoring in a robust way, there needs to be training involved.
“People at the top are used to being decision makers, advice givers and solution finders,” says Hilary. “So the training we provide helps them get out of the driver’s seat and step into a mode of listening and asking for advice.”
Those in junior positions are then trained to be mentors. This helps them to take ownership of the process, to have a structured mentoring conversation and to challenge their mentees to extract the learning – not just on a personal level but on a systems level.
With TPC Leadership this is a 4 day programme, after which mentors receive accreditation. This mentoring qualification is something they usually wouldn’t be able to access at this point of their career.
“So our reverse mentoring helps organisations to tackle diversity not only by helping them to listen to underrepresented groups but also by supporting the career progression of individuals,” says Hilary. “Those mentors become a resource in their organisation, they become role models to others, and they form a network with a senior stakeholder.”
Get emotionally – not just cognitively – invested
When rolled out effectively across an organisation, reverse mentoring is a highly relational process. Forced conversations over coffee can lead to limited vulnerability from both mentor and mentee. But when senior leadership push past their discomfort and open themselves up to learn, the results can be powerful.
Some of the NHS staff that Hilary works with spend most of their time on very tough wards. So to help senior leadership to understand what it’s like on a daily shift, mentors are starting to bring their mentees onto the ward with them.
“It helps senior leadership to understand not only on a cognitive level but also on an emotional level,” says Hilary, “which is ultimately what creates an inclusive culture. When I get what your experience is like – when I understand what in the system helps or erodes your sense of value and inclusion – then I can create change.”
Looking for insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.