Reverse Mentoring from two perspectives

Natasha Bance

From Richard’s perspective as the mentee

I’m delighted that the Government Statistical Service (GSS) reverse mentoring programme has had positive outcomes. I’ve mentored several people over the years, and I’ve found myself learning more and more from the person I’ve been mentoring. The experience has felt mutually supportive. ‘Traditional’ mentoring can sometimes feel slightly elitist and hierarchical.

So when I heard about this reverse mentoring scheme I was intrigued. I was keen to understand in practice how reverse mentoring could work. I also wanted to explore two questions that seemed particularly relevant to the reverse mentoring approach.

  1. To understand the perspectives and ambitions of junior analysts, to help me in my leadership and management role.
  2. To identify areas where I might be inflexible and need to change, or where my skill set needs to develop.

Between November 2020 and April 2021 Sophie and I met eight times in a virtual setting. We concentrated on the ‘flexibility’ objective, but we also talked about other topics. This included wellbeing and providing feedback that related to Sophie’s interests.

I would send over material before the meetings to help Sophie prepare. For example, we spent three meetings discussing a series of questions about different aspects of flexibility. We spoke about things like the last time we did certain things at work, like:

  • taking risks
  • doing something completely new
  • solving difficult problems

I found the exercise enjoyable and thought-provoking. I also found it reassuring. I was reminded that some newer staff assume senior staff have all the answers and a perfect master plan. This is sadly not the case. No matter how much pressure you’re under you need to communicate changes in approach or priorities carefully. And you should give reasons for the changes. It’s also important to create partnerships with other people to help support change.

I was also reminded that it’s good to draw on HR resources about ‘having difficult conversations’ in tricky staffing situations. Remember that you’re not alone. And remember that different people have different desires for feedback. I have my own approach and other people will have theirs. But it’s helpful to make sure people understand your approach so they’re not surprised by it.

From Sophie’s perspective as the mentor

When I found this scheme I was intrigued to see how it would work in practice. I couldn’t understand how a senior member of staff could learn much from me. But this was the biggest lesson I learnt from this experience. There is always space for anyone to learn, regardless of their position.

This exercise was as beneficial for me as it was for Richard. Our discussions and debates made me to think in ways I had not thought before. Furthermore, I discovered new ideas that I had not previously considered.

I organised a theme of discussion for each session. The themes were based on Richard’s objectives. For example, we hosted sessions on a range of topics including wellbeing at work and how to get the most out of feedback.

We both brought our views and experience to the sessions. I felt comfortable enough to challenge Richard’s ideas and help to make him see a situation from the perspective of a junior member of staff. This experience was invaluable, and I truly believe this is a fantastic opportunity to take part in.

Here are a few ways that could help to make the scheme successful:

  • Agree ground rules at the outset – these should be based on mutual respect and confidentiality
  • Be open and honest with each other – this will help you get more value out of your discussions
  • Make sure you tell each other what you would like to get out of the experience and be specific with your objectives
  • Align your objectives with the mentor’s experience and knowledge – for example, there’s no point asking someone junior for advice on performing well at executive-level boards
  • Send discussion notes before each meeting – this gives the mentor time to prepare, and helps the mentee concentrate on what they would like to discuss
  • But remember that it’s a relationship, so it’s about personalities – there’s an element of luck to getting on with each other

Many blog posts end with a ‘call to action’, and this one is no different. Our call to action is to encourage senior staff to think about applying for the Analysis Function Mutual mentoring programme. Get a range of perspectives by discussing the idea with your manager and your senior reports.

The experience is mutually beneficial for the mentor and mentee. It provides a chance to develop beyond your day-to-day role. Remember that the programme only involves giving a very small amount of time over several months. But the potential benefits are beyond measure!

Taking part in a mentoring scheme

The Analysis Function (AF) are launching a new Mutual Mentoring scheme that combines ‘traditional’ mentoring with reverse mentoring. You can find out more about the scheme in our latest news article.

Sophie Skillings and Richard Laux
Natasha Bance
Sophie Skillings is a GSS Fast streamer.

Richard Laux is Chief Statistician at the Cabinet Office and Deputy Director, Data and Analysis, at the Race Disparity Unit.