Reverse mentoring: Promoting diversity and positive culture change

Following their recent podcast for ‘Your Digital Mentor’, Alice Matimba and Martin Dougherty reflect on their experiences of reverse mentoring, and how it can play a key role in promoting positive organisational and research culture.

by Alice Matimba, Overseas Courses Development Officer at the Wellcome Genome Campus, and Martin Dougherty, Chief Operating Officer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

What is reverse mentoring?

The process of reverse mentorship follows natural ways of building a professional relationship. That means the mentor and mentee need to strike the right chemistry, create a sense of trust and openness, and be willing to share knowledge, experiences and personal insights about subjects of common interest. Unlike the typical mentor-mentee relationship, in reverse mentoring the mentor is often relatively junior in age, experience or level in the organisation and the mentee is more senior. Effectively, the most educative and most mutually beneficial reverse mentoring relationships involve people coming from different lived and professional experiences. In this blog we showcase how diversity reverse mentoring was used to facilitate engagement around building awareness about the underlying impact of racism and microaggressions on black people and minority ethnic groups. We discuss benefits and outcomes of this engagement and advocate for wider roll-out of such a programme which can play a key role in promoting positive organisational and research culture.

How it started

In June 2020 during the highly charged and emotional period of Black Lives Matter protests and revelation of the disproportionate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic among Black and Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK, Dr Alice Matimba and Dr Martin Dougherty started a conversation about racism and the challenges that black people face in the workplace and their communities. Alice is a black African woman originally from Zimbabwe. In her role as an Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences manger, she is passionate about research skills development, capacity building and empowerment through training, networking and mentorship. Martin is a white English man and as the Chief Operating Officer is responsible for a wide array of operations at the highest level across both the Wellcome Genome Campus and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Below are some highlights and lessons learnt from this mentorship experience.

Seeing things differently

The mentee gets to see the organisation through someone else’s lens who is much junior to them and gives their insights which can contribute to positive organisational culture. It’s true that the higher you go up in an organisation, the less connected you become with regular daily activities and people in the organisation. And when the people around you are also mostly like you, you miss learning from others with diverse backgrounds. Therefore, a reverse mentor can support an organisation through the person they are mentoring, building awareness for broader institution-wide impact. The mentor may be asked to review new policies or give feedback on new initiatives. This is a key step to foster an inclusive approach in the development of materials which are relatable to a diverse workforce.

Safe spaces for real talk

Most people find it uncomfortable to talk about race issues in the workplace. We need to be open to have conversations with people in all kinds of positions and this can drive a positive change. People in charge need to make sure they have the skills to listen and learn from others about issues which affect their confidence and performance. Establishing trust helps in achieving a safe space to engage in such conversations and be free from fear or judgement.  Talking about racism and sharing experiences can be emotionally draining. However, there is never a better time to get past the awkward discomfort of talking about it with the right people, and find ways to address the problems collectively.

Microaggressions hurt people

If you have never experienced race-driven microaggressions, then you belong to the privileged.  It is easy to dismiss reports of microaggressions. The reasons don’t matter, but how it hurts others matters. It’s not till you spare some moments and genuinely listen to their experiences, do you get to really understand the impact certain behaviours have on others. Understanding this can start off as uncomfortable but once you are able to strike an open and honest conversation, then the real learning begins.

Being a reverse mentor is a rewarding experience

As you navigate the reverse mentorship journey, you can be certain to go through various emotional spins from excitement to shock. Overall, the mutual benefits are worth the effort and awkwardness of building an open dialogue about sensitive issues. As a mentor you get to interact with an influential person and get to learn what they do in their roles. This creates a sense of inspiration whereby the feeling of being able to achieve higher goals in your career becomes realistic and achievable.

Overall reverse mentoring is a rewarding experience to learn, educate and feed forward. If you get a reverse mentorship opportunity – take it!

What next?

This year we will be looking forward to amplifying this initiative more broadly across the organisation, and start a movement for reverse mentoring, advocacy and sponsorship so that it becomes the norm in the organisation

Find out more

To learn more about reverse mentoring and how this impacts the mentor, the mentee and the organisation go here to listen to the conversation between Alice and Martin.