Reverse mentoring – forwards, not back

Linklaters has recently completed the pilot of its reverse mentoring scheme. Nick Marshall, a Managing Associate in the Employment team, talks about the benefits to business of reverse mentoring, and his experiences of mentoring a member of Linklaters’ Partnership Board as part of the pilot.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring programs involve a junior staff member mentoring a senior manager. It was brought into the mainstream in 1999 by the former CEO of General Electric, who used it to pair senior executives with junior employees so the latter could teach the former how to use the internet.

Since then, the aim of such schemes has broadened, and they often involve wider discussions about the experiences (both inside and outside of work) of employees who are just starting their careers, particularly those who are part of minority groups.

What are the business benefits?

The business benefits of reverse mentoring are huge, and the benefits of broadening out decision-making beyond a narrow group who have similar life experiences is well-known.

On an individual level, the scheme encourages participants to think about solutions to complex problems, and to discuss issues which they might otherwise avoid. For mentors in particular, it is empowering to have the opportunity to influence policy by speaking directly to someone “in charge”. Mentees also benefit by being exposed to fresh ideas about problems they might be aware of, but are not sure how to deal with.

How did the scheme work?

Linklaters chose to focus its pilot reverse mentoring program on three diversity strands: BAME, LGBT and social mobility. Junior employees (both lawyers and colleagues in our business teams) who had a close connection to one of the strands were invited to apply for the scheme, and those who were successful (the mentors) were paired with senior partners and managers (the mentees) within the Firm.

The intention was to have about eight hours of contact time over six to nine months, during which the junior colleague would mentor the partner on issues relevant diversity strand(s), whether inside or outside of the business. The pairings would then consider what action Linklaters could take to help address these issues.

The best bits

One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was getting the opportunity to talk candidly about issues I am passionate about, with someone senior within the Firm who has the power to make a difference.

  • On social mobility, my mentee and I talked a lot about the need to demystify the “City” to encourage those from less socially mobile backgrounds (particularly outside of London) to consider careers in the professions.
  • On LGBT issues, a blogpost I wrote last year sparked a great discussion on how the Firm can support its LGBT employees across the globe, in particular when challenges exist because of local laws which criminalise homosexuality.
The challenges

There were two big challenges:

  • My mentee and I had not worked with (or even come across) each other in our time at Linklaters. This meant we had to gain each other’s trust so that we were comfortable opening up about some pretty personal things that you would not normally talk to a work colleague about (particularly one you have just met). Setting ground rules about what we were happy to share more widely, and what stayed between us, was key.
  • One of the biggest challenges was accepting that there are limits on what organisations can realistically achieve, particularly because of wider societal issues that they cannot solve alone. For example, improving social mobility requires increasing the availability of good educational opportunities, and there being visible successful role models in local communities which young people aspire to.

    However, it was also important not to be defeatist, and to work out how the Firm could make a real and valuable difference, for example through schemes such as Making Links (a competition run by Linklaters to encourage state school-educated A Level students to think about careers in commercial law).
Would I recommend reverse mentoring?
Yes – and there is not one mentor or mentee I have spoken to who regretted taking part in the pilot.

For me, the success of the scheme was in providing an invaluable link between those in senior positions who might have the power to act but lack the knowledge of issues being faced by particular minority groups, with those who have the knowledge of the issues but lack any power to do something about them.