Why your next DE&I strategy should be in reverse (reverse mentoring that is)

Patrice Gordon, author of just-published book, Reverse Mentoring: Removing Barriers and Building Belonging in the Workplace, explains why DEI strategies need to work in reverse:

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Sep 29, 2023

We can probably all agree that in years gone by, diversity, equity, and inclusion was pretty much a checkbox exercise in corporate social responsibility reports. The data presented was often either sidelined or very much compliance-driven.

As we all know, this old paradigm failed to embrace the true potential and diversity of the workforce, whether it be age and gender to ethnicity and beyond.

But while we might think we’ve all progressed since then, there’s plenty of data to suggest we have not, with there being significant gaps in workplace satisfaction and trust. In Better Up’s latest connection survey, 69% of employees feel disconnected, and a staggering 38% don’t trust their co-workers.

It’s for this reason that I believe a different approach is needed to DE&I. To me, it’s one that needs to be done in reverse.

To understand why, we need to take a step back:

There are more nuanced layers to our workforce

Gender equity:  Goal No.5 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals warns us that gender balance is far from being reached and we still have a long way to go.

Ethnicity and cultural representation: The more heterogeneous our teams are, the richer our tapestry of ideas. While that might sound great, the problem that comes with it is a greater potential for misunderstandings.

Generational gaps: From Baby Boomers to Gen Z, we’ve got up to five generations now sharing physical and virtual office space.

The gig economy: Predictions indicate that many – particularly younger employees – will opt for short-term contracts or freelancing, challenging traditional norms of job commitment.

The role of AI and technology: As automation and artificial intelligence becomes the sixth member of the team, jobs will be lost that were once human-only.

It’s worth highlighting these issues if only to draw attention to the fact that the evolving workforce landscape demands immediate attention.

Employees want more than just representation; they seek environments where they can genuinely thrive. The gig economy and advancements in AI are drastically changing the commitment levels and nature of jobs. In essence, organizations are facing a tidal wave of changes, and failing to adapt could spell disaster.

The future is not bleak but transformative. Modern DE&I initiatives are embedding themselves deeply within organizational culture and are intricately tied to business outcomes.Organizations must actively shape environments that foster true belonging, where everyone’s voice is not just heard but valued.

And by aligning DE&I with technological advancements and focusing on human connection, we are ushering in a new era – a boundary-less work environment filled with opportunity and promise.

Cue: reverse mentoring

To do all this though, one key requirement is abundantly clear: for leaders, the path is to listen to the growing chorus of employee voices and adapt.

After all, an organization’s ability to evolve is synonymous with its ability to thrive.

All leaders, not just CHRO’s, need to address the requirement for this ante to be upped when it comes to employee engagement and actively listening to employees.

As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (and others), says: “Start with the end in mind.” if you want to build a more inclusive workforce, include those who are most impacted but least represented (at a leadership level) in your decision-making.

The benefits of reverse mentoring

When a senior leader is mentored by a person from an under-represented background – whether that be ethnicity, gender, age, disability and so on, they become the novice and lean into their growth mindset to understand their biases and drive change when it comes to equity.

Reverse mentoring is a tool that not only allows senior leaders to build a deep connection with a person of difference, but if all goes well, and it is set up correctly, it will also lead to an increase in overall engagement as the process and most importantly the actions that are driven from the relationship benefit wider groups in the organization.

Further benefits of reverse mentoring are:

Increased understanding: Mentors often gain a seat, metaphorically, at leadership tables, contributing a fresh perspective that challenges status quo thinking.

Leadership reinvigoration: This experience humanizes senior executives, making them receptive to learning and evolving.

Inclusive policy making: Policies born from a diverse dialogue tend to be less myopic and more universally impactful.

Breaking the ivory tower: Reverse mentoring makes leaders more approachable, more human, and more in tune with the workforce they lead.

Break the despondency:

The despondency many in the workforce feel is a consequence of feeling disconnected from their leaders and also from other co-workers.

But a leader taking the time and effort to invest in a relationship with an under-represented group says a lot to the employee base.

It says that their lived experiences and opinions matter.

In a world where leaders are increasingly busy and you have to ‘get in the queue’ for their attention, this provides a great shortcut to that.

If you still need convincing, some very big businesses have seen very big benefits from implementing reverse mentoring.

They include:

Professional services: Deloitte. Reverse Mentoring was instrumental in identifying the goals and ultimately the success of the Black Action Plan. (Ethnicity perspective)

Law: Allen & Overy allowed the managing partner to understand a Black female perspective when it comes to working and thriving in the firm. (Intersectional perspective)

Beauty: Estee Lauder. CEO, Fabrizio Freda, has been clear since 2015 that the key to thriving in an ultra-competitive marketplace is to ensure his organization is on top of the latest trends and – just as importantly – has an open-door policy when it comes to challenging the status quo. Permitting employees to share their viewpoints, shortcutting the traditional hierarchy to ensure that insights can be acted on quickly leading to the customers seeing the benefits sooner. (Age perspective)

The examples above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges I see in virtually every organization I speak to.

Knowing that the benefits of reverse mentoring are far-reaching, however, is invaluable.

So, what are you waiting for?

Patrice is author of Reverse Mentoring: Removing Barriers and Building Belonging in the Workplace

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