This blog post is written by Rachael O’Connor, who is based at the University of Leeds. Rachael has previously spoken about her reverse mentoring pilot with students at the University of Leeds School of Law, and this blog post provides more details on the project and her reflections.
Setting up a reverse mentoring scheme: some practical hints and tips
Following my earlier blog post outlining the reverse mentoring study I undertook earlier this year, I had a few requests for tips and advice on implementing reverse mentoring schemes so I thought it would be useful to put some further thoughts into another blog. Having gone through the pilot study with international UG students and staff members [see blog for details], I do not perceive reverse mentoring as a ‘solution’ to issues created by barriers, whether that be generational, cultural, social or other barriers. However, I believe it has potential to act as a catalyst and positive force for change through lessons learned and subsequent reactive decisions Reverse mentoring gives a platform and voice to those who may regard themselves as ‘other’ within different institutions and in doing so, has potential to empower those individuals to recognise the value of their diversity and educate others about the benefits of that diversity. It can also encourage participants to consider that diversity in their daily working practices and decision-making.
What follows are some of my top tips for implementing a successful reverse mentoring scheme in any sort of organisation and between any individuals, reflecting on my experiences of piloting a study between staff and students in a HE setting. It is by no means a complete list but I hope you find it useful and informative. If anyone would like to discuss any of what follows further or talk more generally about reverse mentoring, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me – I am always happy to chat and offer advice: firstname.lastname@example.org
Know your focus – what are you trying to achieve?
Being clear about why you are running a reverse mentoring scheme is important. What is it that you think reverse mentoring might be able to achieve or address? My case study was centred on relationships between staff and international students, focusing on issues relating to diversity and inclusion. Whilst reverse mentoring is generally about breaking down ‘barriers’, it is important to identify what those barriers are. To help me figure this out, I ran some focus groups with staff and students before starting the reverse mentoring scheme to get a broad overview of the issues it might be useful to explore in the mentoring meetings. The focus group findings, together with a review of existing literature and reflections on my own experiences of working with international students, helped me to decide on the themes for the meetings.
My study is just one example – it explored themes around belonging and community, labelling and identity, inclusive teaching/practices and failure/resilience in the context of being an international student and a member of staff in HE. Other schemes e.g. in legal practice, have explored issues relating to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, being a junior employee etc. So whilst there are no real rules or limits on what reverse mentoring partnerships can tackle, it is useful to identify from the outset what the focus of your scheme will be and communicate this clearly to participants.
Avoid over engineering – be led by the participants
Now I am going to slightly contradict what I said above – whilst it is important to have a focus, you should also be willing to adopt a bit of a “que sera sera” mantra. If your reverse mentoring scheme is going to involve students and especially if it is a research study like mine, it can be tempting to try and micro-manage the process. Some participants may even encourage you to do this e.g. by asking you exactly what to talk about, what not to talk about, how to behave etc. However, in my opinion, this risks defeating one of the objects of reverse mentoring which is to empower the mentor (i.e. the person who would usually be in the role of mentee – in my study, the students).
I found setting general meeting themes helpful (as outlined above) and suggesting some ‘ice breaker’ style questions pairs might consider before meeting as a starting point (e.g. how important is the label “international student” to my identity? What experiences have I had of ‘failure’ and how did I respond to it?) However, I tried to limit my input beyond that in an attempt to avoid unnecessary complexity and layers of ‘rules’. Organic and individual relationship development was the goal in my study.
I found there was a real mix of approaches amongst the student mentors. Some were happy to get stuck in and largely ignored my suggested topics/questions, focusing on their own agenda. Others felt very wedded to my themes and questions and were clearly nervous about departing from them. This did not come as a surprise considering these students were acting as mentors to people they viewed as ‘superiors’, something none of them imagined having the opportunity to do. I think the awareness of being part of a research study also impacted here as some participants felt there was a ‘right way’ to do reverse mentoring and this perhaps constrained their willingness to ‘go with the flow’. It is possible that participants would feel less restricted if taking part in a scheme that was not also part of a research study.
If the power dynamics are a little more balanced in your scheme e.g. a scheme exploring disability inclusion between two colleagues of similar seniority levels, one of whom has a disability and the other does not, you might feel comfortable to leave the meeting topics/themes completely up to the pairs. This is the approach that some of the law firms I spoke to in designing my scheme had taken. If you are aiming to measure or review outcomes, I would suggest taking a consistent approach between pairs in terms of your input to enable meaningful comparisons.
Reflect, reflect and … reflect some more!
To help participants get the most out of reverse mentoring and for it to have the potential to instigate positive change, you should build in regular opportunity for reflection. My study required participants to complete a short reflective log after each meeting, based on Gibbs reflective cycle. The closing interview also gave an opportunity for holistic reflection on the entire project, including the training. I found the most authentic reflections came out of face-to-face discussions during interviews. Had it not been for ‘lockdown’, I would have loved to get all the participants together in a room to chat about their experiences and celebrate the project (obviously with cake). I could have done this online but was concerned about online meeting fatigue and further overburdening colleagues and students at such a challenging time. However, I think if there were opportunity to have a group reflection at the end of a scheme, this would help to really build a community amongst the participants and offer the benefit of shared reflection.
Although I think oral reflections are most useful, I hope that the written logs participants kept will be useful for them to look back on, particularly for the students if filling out application forms or engaging with other opportunities that require them to demonstrate particular skills such as leadership, finding solutions to challenging scenarios, teamwork etc.
Think about support structures in advance
It is likely in reverse mentoring relationships that partners will discuss topics that may be sensitive or emotive and potentially topics that could give rise to conflicts or disagreements. In many ways, this is one of the positives of reverse mentoring as it enables participants to challenge their views, stereotypes, biases etc. in relation to one another or groups they may perceive their partner as representing. However, this also has potential to give rise to wellbeing and/or safeguarding issues.
Training is essential to ensure both mentors and mentees are clear who they should turn to if any issues arise. I found staff mentees were concerned about what protocol to follow if a student mentor disclosed something the staff member felt should be reported. Confidentiality and respect is central to successful reverse mentoring partnerships. However, at the same time, participants need to know where to turn if issues arise. There is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ – my project relied on existing School and University support structures but it was still important to draw participants’ attention to the protocol to be followed as participants may not have had to engage with it before. I also made clear to participants they could always chat with me and the protocol I would follow if matters needed to be escalated.
Be open to unexpected occurrences – have some contingency plans
My reverse mentoring scheme ran into the University shutdown/covid-19 lockdown. Of course, this could never have been foreseen and I anticipated that some of the partnerships might come to an abrupt end. However, the reality was quite the opposite. Several participants saw moving their meetings online as a good opportunity to practice using the online systems they would have to engage with for learning and teaching. Others really appreciated the opportunity to keep in contact with someone just for a chat, particularly students who were living alone in their accommodation, unable to get home and missing family/friends. There were inevitably delays to the planned schedule for the study so being flexible with participants and putting them first was key but I was really pleased that the pairings offered some comfort to participants at such a difficult time.
Whether your reverse mentoring scheme is with students, colleagues or employees, it is important to build in flexibility for unexpected circumstances, making yourself available as a source of support and advice for the participants and being prepared to change your initial plans.
Be realistic – time is precious
Whilst, in my view, it would be brilliant if every member of staff and student could participate in a reverse mentoring relationship, the effort that goes into this one-to-one partnership takes up time. Consequently, there is risk of overburdening certain members of staff and students who regularly volunteer for these types of initiatives. We must recognise that sometimes initiatives designed to improve issues relating to, for example in my study, diversity, have the potential to exacerbate other issues, such as time management/job or study stressors. Well-meaning projects like reverse mentoring can as such be a double-edged sword. Whilst you might get richer data or more topics covered if participants meet weekly for a year, for example, try to think about how that might impinge on other commitments participants have and how it could negate opportunity to reflect between meetings.
In my study, participants met four times for around 1-1.5 hours (fortnightly for one semester – approximately 8 weeks) and I found this worked well for a pilot, although some participants (both mentors and mentees) did comment that they would have liked to have continued the relationship or otherwise had more regular meetings, perhaps over the whole year. It is a fine balance to get right but try to keep a reasonable cap on the number and length of meetings.
Similarly, do not expect that you can set up a good reverse mentoring scheme in a few weeks. I spent the best part of a year planning this pilot project and running the more general focus groups before the reverse mentoring partnerships actually began. There is a lot to think about in addition to the points considered in this short blog such as training, location of meetings, pairing of mentors/mentees, ethics etc. – it’s not a task to be underestimated.
Having said that, my final top tip is: go for it! With good advance planning, clear goals and belief in the participants, reverse mentoring is capable of producing some really beneficial outcomes, empowering mentors and mentees and setting the foundations for positive institutional development.
Rachael O’Connor, Lecturer in Law
University of Leeds
 G Gibbs, Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning method (1998) Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.