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Reverse mentoring: a how-to guide

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

Words by Cheyenne Eugene

Reverse mentoring challenges the status quo and flips traditional learning dynamics on their axis. This how-to guide deconstructs what must be considered when building a reverse mentoring scheme in pharma

Picture the concept of mentoring and the image of a long-standing employee imparting wisdom to a junior member of staff will likely spring to mind. Reverse mentoring (RM) flips this idea on its head and sees younger employees, or those with a different background or identity, share their experiences and perspectives with their more senior colleagues. The ultimate aim is to diversify company culture and add value to the business.

With this in mind, the benefits of an RM scheme are relatively obvious, but knowing how to design one and what to consider may not be. Here, GOLD asks experts to offer some advice on how to create a mutually beneficial RM initiative.

Choose the right scheme

An RM programme should align with a company’s strategy, employee priorities and the external environment. Building on an existing area of strategy – be that equality, diversity and inclusion; sustainability; digital transformation; or something else – allows an organisation to set clear goals and gain tangible results. How to find a clear direction is explained by Geoff Smith, CEO, Grayce, a graduate talent developer venture. He recommends conducting a gap analysis “to identify where [the company] is now versus where they want to be in the short, medium and long term”, before adding that it is vital these activities are authentic, rather than “a tick box exercise”.

Perfect preparation

“It’s really normal for everybody to be nervous at the start of one of these programmes,” says Rebecca Hunt, Vice President, Patient and Community Engagement, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, who has taken part in such a scheme. “There could easily be sensible worries around showing yourself up for not knowing something.” Destigmatising knowledge gaps and creating a safe space between mentor and mentee is vital from the start.

Younger mentors can be given the confidence to mentor an older colleague through training and support from an expert external organisation. And for mentees, being provided with reading materials, videos and glossaries in advance means they can arrive with questions and reflections.

Build trust

Confidentiality and trust are indispensable, and Smith urges companies to “create a learning agreement”. For example, Grayce’s ‘Walk a Mile’ RM initiative provided participants with a learning agreement template that each pair could tailor to suit them. This provided the tools and language to easily set and implement boundaries and trust from the outset.

Consider the set-up

While in-person meetings can lead to more personal bonding experiences, they have the potential to amplify feelings of anxiety and could risk stunting productive conversation. Meeting online may be a safer first step, and this allows a more diverse range of people to take part. While the psychology of online meetings is still being explored, “video conferencing is very democratic”, highlights Hunt.

Keep it consistent

Creating time for the commitment may be a concern for busy professionals, but experts continually point to the profits of RM schemes. The ROI is high, with Grayce reporting that 94% of respondents feel reverse mentoring helped to break down barriers. “Make the programme business as usual, rather than a one-off exercise so the benefits continue indefinitely,” advises Smith. Additionally, Hunt says: “I had to ensure that this time was protected so that I could invest not only in myself, but also be respectful to the people who were mentoring me.”

It's really easy not to know what your own blind spots are

Visibility and tracking

“As a leader, you have a responsibility to set the tone for your organisation,” says Hunt. A huge swathe of leaders in the pharmaceutical industry are Gen X or Boomers, meaning there may well be knowledge gaps at the top that could be filled by insights from younger employees. “It’s really easy not to know what your own blind spots are,” Hunt adds.

Exploring topics previously considered taboo will undoubtedly benefit pharma, its workforce and those it serves. Stakeholders of every age, ethnicity, ability, location and identity must feel valued and understood by the industry, and reverse mentoring could be a way to ensure these goals are met and exceeded.

This article features in GOLD 22 – read the full issue here.

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