Do you need a reverse mentor?
Want to understand what’s really going on in your organisation? Flip your mentoring programme on its head, as Mike Clasper did
Mike Clasper CBE CCMI joined HMRC at a time of change. It was 2008 and the organisation was large and hierarchical, with multiple levels of management. HMRC had come under pressure to be more transparent and customer-centric. It needed to work more efficiently. Yet Clasper joined with no direct experience of the civil service.
"I wanted to understand how the organisation worked," he says. To do so, he returned to an idea he'd explored earlier at P&G. "I thought reverse mentoring could help - and the leadership team was willing to experiment."
Popularised by GE's Jack Welch in 1999, reverse mentoring pairs senior and junior staff for the purposes of skill development and insight. It is particularly effective in helping established colleagues understand new technology: Welch paired 500 of his top managers with junior associates to learn how to use the web.
At HMRC, Clasper knew he needed to gain the perspective of junior leaders to make the organisation more nimble. "They were younger than anyone I came into day-to-day contact with. I asked the organisation to find people who were considered talented, with potential. If you're going to get the most out of reverse mentoring, you need people who can see beyond their current role."
Mindful of the benefits of diversity of thinking, Clasper enlisted the support of three reverse mentors: a white woman, a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) man and a BAME woman. They were drawn from three different departments within HMRC: enforcement, customer service and head office functions.
"The primary driver was ethnic and gender diversity," says Clasper. ''What I wanted to find out was what it was like working in the organisation as a minority at the time, not what it had been like as a minority ten years ago - that's what you'd get if you asked those at a senior level."
There was a second advantage. "I had the ability to play back how the reverse mentors interpreted communications that were coming from the top of the organisation. Quite often the interpretations were different from those intended; as a chairman this was useful to know. During times of change management, you want to give accurate context and perspective so people buy into the changes."
While mentors were initially nominated informally, the reverse mentoring process was put in place formally. "I made sure the purpose of the meetings was transparent between me, management and the individual," says Clasper. He advises other mentees to do the same: "To reap the benefits, it is important to make sure the exchange stays as reverse mentoring and not the other way around. You've got to be willing to listen and to ask questions - and take the answers seriously."
Transparency also avoids alienating others who aren't involved. "As you are learning things about parts of the organisation that you wouldn't normally know, middle management may be suspicious of your motives," says Clasper. "They could think you are trying to challenge their authority and responsibilities."
With the right system in place, Clasper thinks all organisations can benefit from reverse mentoring. "I would speculate that the larger and more geographically spread an organisation, the more helpful reverse mentoring can be," he says. "This is a different way of gaining perspective of the impact of change that does not involve spending lots of money on it."
Clasper learned that it is "important to watch for misinterpretations", and about his own unconscious bias: "People with good intentions can still have a mindset that is not helpful. In the past I was making choices for employees, but I learned through reverse mentoring that you should not second-guess other people's decisions."
Most of all, reverse mentoring can be a positive experience. ''You don't just hear problems," says Clasper. "Reverse mentoring can leave you inspired and optimistic."
Mike Clasper CBE CCMI is now chairman of Coats Group plc, and a former president of CMI