10 tips for impactful reverse mentoring
By Rachael O’Connor, Associate Professor in Legal Education and LawCare Trustee.
Reverse mentoring can help junior mentors find their voice and feel more connected in their workplace, and it can provide more senior mentees with an authentic understanding of the day-to-day lived experiences of junior employees.
We also have a more detailed toolkit due out later this year.
What is reverse mentoring?
Reverse mentoring has grown in popularity across the legal profession in recent years, involving solicitors, barristers and the judiciary to name a few. However, relatively little research has been done in this area in terms of the impact of reverse mentoring and how to do it well.
Reverse mentoring can take many different forms. At its core, it typically involves a more junior or less experienced person (the mentor - for example, a trainee or apprentice solicitor) mentoring someone in a more senior, experienced role (the mentee - for example, a partner in a law firm). The idea of reversing more traditional hierarchies and power dynamics is to give the more senior person an authentic insight into day-to-day lived experiences of junior employees, and to support the more junior person to find their voice and a greater sense of belonging and wellness within their workplace.
In many cases, there may also be other differences between the mentor and mentee beyond role seniority that impact the mentors’ experiences at work that are explored through the mentoring conversations. For example, identifying as under-represented within the law or a particular organisation due to gender, race or ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class, faith or religion.
If you’re considering introducing reverse mentoring within your workplace, here are our top 10 tips for making it impactful, based on our experiences of running a reverse mentoring research project in the legal profession.
1. Understand and articulate your “why”
Reverse mentoring can become an EDI tick-box exercise where it doesn’t have a purpose. That purpose should be meaningful to your organisational context and be the core driver for your reverse mentoring scheme.
For example, are you aware that mental health and wellbeing is poor in your organisation? Or do you know that people from ethnically minoritised backgrounds are under-represented? This sort of statistical knowledge might provide the basis for initiating a reverse mentoring scheme involving people affected by these issues to start a conversation about how to improve things in the future. These conversations may need to bring in people outside of your firm such as those applying for roles externally or those who have worked for you previously.
Once you understand your “why”, it becomes easier for reverse mentoring to have a driving purpose and consequently, a bigger future impact on culture and employee experiences.
2. Do your homework
There is a growing amount of research around reverse mentoring. Many organisations within our sector and beyond are engaging with reverse mentoring or have done in the past. Rather than reinventing the wheel, or making the same mistakes as others may have in the past, do some research and reading around reverse mentoring before you begin to discover what’s already out there.
Also consider having conversations with people in other organisations who have engaged with reverse mentoring who have may some valuable advice to pass on. These conversations could also lead to future collaborations (see tip 9).
3. Build a delivery taskforce
It can make a world of difference to have a team of people who are invested in the concepts underpinning reverse mentoring and who have an input into the design of the scheme. Creating a team of people both within and outside your organisations who are supporters of the scheme can help with sharing workload, providing different perspectives and insights and also may encourage a wider range of people to get involved as mentors and mentees where they can see there is diversity of thought behind the scheme.
This is also a great way for people to get involved who may not be able to commit the time to being a mentor or mentee but who are keen to support EDI initiatives. Your taskforce might include people in EDI leadership roles, HR, senior and junior colleagues, external partners such as clients or contacts from other firms and organisations. It might also include aspiring lawyers such as current students. Such a diverse team can work together to co-create and co-deliver the reverse mentoring scheme, enhancing its authenticity for future participants.
4. Support people to take part – acknowledge and reward
When it comes to encouraging people to sign up to a reverse mentoring scheme as a mentor or mentee, they also need to understand their “why” (see tip 1). We know very well how time poor many of us in the legal profession are. Asking people to get involved in EDI and wellbeing related initiatives is often a challenge when client demands are pressing and unpredictable. Consequently, it’s important that we don’t just expect people to be able to sign up. We need to support them to engage with it, if they want to.
For example, through offering mentors non-chargeable time codes which can contribute towards their time targets and/or offering perks like retail vouchers for taking part. Mentors could also be supported to consider how they could utilise this experience in applying for promotions and other roles and opportunities.
For mentees in more senior roles, time recording/financial incentives may be less important. Here, linking reverse mentoring to wider organisational strategies may be more beneficial, supporting senior people to understand how being mentored can progress their own development and consequently, that of the whole organisation, financially and culturally. A healthy workplace culture pays dividends!
5. Provide meaningful guidance
What amounts to good guidance on reverse mentoring will likely differ from person to person. Some will want lots of guidance, some will be happy to develop conversations organically. However, the need for some structure and direction is likely to be universal. Giving people options is key.
- It can be particularly helpful to run some introductory sessions to the scheme where mentors and mentees can meet one another as a group, building community.
- A written handbook often also proves beneficial where mentors and mentees can be reminded of the key details and aims of the scheme, as well as being provided with prompts and ideas about the conversations they may have when they meet, aligned with the scheme’s purpose (see tip 1).
- Having other spaces where mentors and mentees can informally engage with one another can also be useful, such as an online chat space or group get togethers at key anchor points of the scheme such as beginning, middle and end or more frequently depending on the scheme’s length.
6. Purposefully challenge hierarchies
The crux of reverse mentoring is that if we open ourselves up to the idea of doing things differently, positive changes can stem from these often “unusual” conversations and approaches. The continual enforcement of traditional hierarchies within organisations may stifle innovation, leave more junior colleagues feeling they do not have a voice or influence and can consequently have a negative impact on workplace culture. This is in opposition to organisational structures with more flattened hierarchies where everyone feels their opinions and experiences count. This can be difficult to achieve, particularly in a sector like law which has historically been a very hierarchical profession. Reverse mentoring can begin to unpick the upholding of hierarchies and power dynamics but this must be intentionally done both within one-to-one mentoring meetings and outside of them.
For example, involving all participants in next steps (see tip 10) following a reverse mentoring scheme, as opposed to this just becoming the remit of senior leadership once the mentoring is over. If we seek to create a more level playing field through reverse mentoring conversations, this needs to be continued and intentionally practiced outside those conversations and beyond.
7. Opportunities for reflection
Reflecting on our experiences is vital to increasing their potential impact. In the fast-paced world of the legal profession, we can often find ourselves bouncing from one thing to the next, without much time to take stock as we go. For reverse mentoring to be more than a tick-box exercise, this reflective time needs to be factored in (see tip 4). We recognise that reverse mentoring can often be a significant time commitment and that the reflection part may feel like the easiest thing to drop when we’re busy.
However, we instead advocate for making the requirement to reflect a central part of any reverse mentoring scheme and for those taking part to make a commitment to engage in this reflection, for example, through a reverse mentoring partnership agreement. Reflection at different levels and in different formats can be particularly impactful. Consider offering, for example, individual written reflections, whole group reflective discussions and smaller sub-group reflective activities at different stages of the scheme for maximal impact. Continuing reflection once your scheme has finished can also support with ensuring longer-term actions.
8. Expand your reverse mentoring network
If you decide to engage in reverse mentoring or you have previously been involved with it in the past, why not seek out others who are also interested in or have been involved in reverse mentoring? This may be other people within your organisation, external partners, people working in competitor firms, in the wider legal profession or in other sectors. Having the opportunity to discuss the impact of reverse mentoring conversations with others who understand what the experience is like can support deeper reflection and encourage mentors and mentees to continue their engagement with and commitment to EDI and wellbeing related work both within their own organisation and in the wider profession. For example, through joining or setting up new committees and networks or becoming allies of and activists in particular causes.
9. Share the experience and collaborate
Improving inclusion and wellbeing in our sector should not be something we work on in silos, viewed as another element of competition in the profession. Instead, we suggest that this is something we should be working on and committed to collaboratively across our sector, at all levels and across different types of legal roles. We have a lot to learn from one another in this space and a willingness to share that learning and collaborate with one another could go a long way towards improving many of the recurrent issues we see in legal workplaces. If you run or have run a reverse mentoring scheme, why not share the experiences of those involved across your organisation and also more widely, for example, by hosting a breakfast event for interested people or putting on a networking seminar to discuss reverse mentoring and other EDI related concerns. What have you learned from the experience, what can others learn from you and how can you learn from others?
10. Take action!
Whilst all of these tips are important and based on our reverse mentoring research with lawyers, this final tip is probably the most significant one we hope you’ll take away with you. Reverse mentoring is never an answer or solution. It’s a conversation starter. It’s a catalyst. It’s an opportunity to talk, consider, analyse and reflect. But really, it’s what happens next after the reverse mentoring conversation that’s the most critical factor. A clear, next steps action plan should therefore be at the heart of the analysis of any reverse mentoring scheme. The learning process of reverse mentoring should never end but can instead be viewed as a continuous, open loop which, as time goes on, grows, expands and brings in more people to the mission: to make the law a better place to be and to work, for everyone.
Real stories of people in the legal community who have experienced stress, depression, anxiety and more.