The power of reciprocal mentoring

Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope on deepening trust and belonging through reverse mentoring

To do our best work, we all need to feel included and valued. And to retain and grow our talent, this is just as true. If we don’t feel included and valued, why would we stay?

Turning up to work in an environment where our colleagues are interested in who we are, the real person that lies beneath the masks we may wear, transforms our experience from the mundane into something that can be deeply meaningful, and purpose driven. We want to trust our leaders and institutions. We want to feel that our team will take care of us. To be treated fairly. Respected for our individual uniqueness and identity as a person.

If we are serious about creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures, where we respect people’s differences, and take time to let people speak up, we need to become more skilled at conversations. It’s no longer enough to just increase wages or perks to retain people. We must focus on the heart of human connection.
The impact of COVID-19 on diverse talent over the past two years has been massive and we now find ourselves in the middle of one of the most competitive job markets in decades. The Great Resignation is upon us.
Any forward-looking leader will appreciate this as a critical moment to consider their employees experience at work. And this means re-thinking how we talk to each other.
Launched back in July 2021, Employee Experience: The Definitive Guide from Josh Bersin, explores the findings from their latest, most important research study yet and cites as the top finding; “Practices related to trust, transparency, inclusion, and caring have a disproportionate impact (when related to financial, people, and innovation outcomes). Important practices include regular and transparent communications from leaders, demonstrations of care for employees, an emphasis on integrity and empathy across an organization, a well-defined company mission, and a culture that cultivates a sense of belonging and inclusion among all employees.”
Over the last 20+ years we have seen time and again the impact that classic mentoring can have on employee experience, retention of talent, and on leadership development. Accelerating career progression, breaking down silos, building trust, and improving leader’s conversational skills, to name a few. 
In the last five or so years, our experience of launching and supporting reverse and reciprocal mentoring programmes has shown that, when implemented with care and expertise, these programmes significantly hit the following points, highlighted by Bersin:
  • They want to trust their leaders and institutions.
  • They want to feel that they belong and that their team will take care of them.
  • They want to be treated fairly, respecting their uniqueness and identity as a person.
  • And they want to see the company investing in their pay, growth, and advancement.

Reciprocal mentoring plays a huge role in influencing and growing inclusive cultures, building trust in leaders and nurturing a sense of belonging for all. 

Yet, there can still be resistance to invest resource and time at the very top of the organisation. A CEO on one of our recent programmes has consistently challenged the time invested in the set up and launch of it, questioning why there can’t just be ‘a briefing note for pairs and off we go’? Whilst that is one option, we have seen the added value of a formal and structured programme which brings participants together from the start. To share their experiences, create a community, unlearn and learn together and effect change.
Reciprocal mentoring plays a huge role in influencing and growing inclusive cultures, building trust in leaders and nurturing a sense of belonging for all
It is interesting to consider why the resistance… Is it just not wanting to invest the time, or could it be a deeper more personal reason? Might there be an underlying fear of not wanting to be exposed, get ‘it’ wrong or say the wrong thing?
Things have moved on so quickly in society over the past few years that potentially those at the top may be feeling vulnerable and may not want to face what’s really happening on a personal level.
When reverse or reciprocal mentoring works, it really effects change. Here are a few of the ways in which it does.
1. Bringing together a group of widely diverse people from different levels and functions across the organisation and supporting them to collaborate and focus on the purpose of the programme over time. This enables a sustained, collaborative, and inclusive approach to innovation and problem solving.
2. Setting up and supporting one-to-one, trusted relationships. Being matched with someone very different in a work context, provides opportunity to hold difficult conversations that are often shut down due to fear of saying the wrong thing. The requirement for both the mentor and the mentee to step into a vulnerable space and take risks in their conversation enables deep learning and behavioural change towards a more inclusive culture.
3. Starting with the most senior people in the organisation. This demonstrates visible commitment to the purpose of the programme at the top of the organisation. Having decision makers involved as participants accelerates trust in leaders, the organisation, and increases the potential speed of change.
4. Modelling a psychologically safe environment at every programme touchpoint and helping participants understand how to do this in their pair conversations. This enables mentors to share their lived experience with honesty, speak their truth to power within the organisation and really be heard. And it helps mentors remain curious in the space of learner rather than expert (a real challenge as we get more senior!) 
5. Putting conversation and learning into action. Including a full group idea generation session within the programme gives a platform from which to act on best quality, creative and diverse thinking.
Reverse or reciprocal mentoring offers so much more than the obvious and well cited (often tech or social media) knowledge transfer. Organisations that are brave enough to invest the time of their people, take the risk of opening critical yet often challenging conversations and get the right support from the start, are well poised to grow strength from within and be at the forefront of truly inclusive workplaces.
No wonder then, that being part of such a programme not only nurtures (often overlooked) talented people with a rich environment for growth and development, and increases their opportunity to be seen and heard, but it actively engages them and strengthens their alliance with the organisation.
Emily Cosgrove and Sara Hope are co-founders of The Conversation Space


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