Even before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum was describing reverse mentoring as a ‘no-brainer’. Now, as employers look to establish new working norms, Patrice Gordon CA explains why it could prove business critical.
This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Accountancy and psychology may seem an odd combination for a degree student. But for Patrice Gordon CA, it’s a way to exhibit both sides of her skillset. “It is unusual,” she says of the subjects she studied at the University of London. “But while I like doing the numbers and helping to build a business, I also have a strong people side.”
That mix of abilities has seen Gordon move into senior finance roles with Royal Mail and Virgin Atlantic while also developing executive coaching business Eminere and writing a book about cognitive diversity (Reverse Mentoring: Removing Barriers and Building Belonging in the Workplace, to be published in spring 2022). Many of her insights were distilled into a compelling TED talk, delivered in 2020, in which she discussed her experience of reverse mentoring Craig Kreeger, then CEO of Virgin Atlantic.
The idea of reverse mentoring first emerged in the 1990s when Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, tasked young employees with explaining the internet to senior executives. Today, however, many companies are using it as a tool to encourage cultural understanding and thus diversity. Senior executives are matched with mentors who can provide a different perspective on the world, perhaps through age, ethnicity, race, sexuality or disability.
Kreeger explained to Gordon that he had no black women in his inner circle and was keen to gain her perspective on how to build a more inclusive culture across the business. Gordon wasn’t surprised to be asked. “I call myself the unintended spokesperson,” she says. “I don’t accept the status quo, I ask constructive questions and I’m committed to being part of organisational change. So in most organisations I’ve worked in, I’ve ended up being the person that leaders look to for an opinion.”
As a result, I’ve always been comfortable conversing with more senior leaders, I have a genuine interest in people, and I’m super-passionate about helping organisations build an inclusive workplace.
The reversal of roles felt strange at first. But by Gordon sharing her experiences, and those of other black women, the discussions proved valuable and thought-provoking for both parties.
“Craig approached the discussions with a genuine sense of curiosity,” says Gordon. “That’s essential. If the leader is not in the right frame of mind, or they’ve been forced to do it, it’s not going to work. You can sense when people are not being authentic but his curiosity helped him to understand the need to be bolder, and I think he wished he’d embraced reverse mentoring sooner. His view was that the diversity figures at Virgin Atlantic were good, but good was not enough. He wanted to do better.”
And how was it for Gordon? “As the mentor, I felt really empowered,” she says. “I felt as though my voice was being heard. And for some mentors it can be the first time they have had that opportunity to be heard in a formal capacity.”
The business case
So what are the business benefits of reverse mentoring? Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2019 pointed to evidence of increased retention of millennial talent. It also featured examples of driving cultural change that can prove essential to an organisation’s commercial prospects. For instance, Fabrizio Freda, CEO of Estée Lauder, revealed that he had implemented a reverse mentoring programme because the company “had come to a place where the future could not be informed by the past”.
As we emerge from the pandemic, that’s a realisation that many leaders in the accountancy profession will probably relate to. The world has changed, and only those businesses with the initiative and energy to respond will flourish in the years to come. In Gordon’s view, the business case is also about encouraging a much wider range of voices to be heard across the company. “This is a tool you can use to build an inclusive environment,” she says. “Studies have shown that organisations with more inclusive environments have higher employee engagement, higher levels of trust and deliver higher returns. It makes you more competitive.”
Indeed, a McKinsey report published last year found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. This followed a report from the World Economic Forum in 2019 which, based on studies from Deloitte, the Boston Consulting Group, Hays and many others, reached an unequivocal conclusion. “The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming,” it read. “The moral argument is weighty enough, but the financial impact – as proven by multiple studies – makes this a no-brainer.”
“If your leadership team is not representative of the wider workforce, you’re going to make decisions that will impact on some people negatively because you’re lacking wider awareness,” Gordon says. “And the fact that so many people have been working from home has accelerated the need for organisations to lean into this a little more. Hybrid and home working has made it easier for employees to move jobs, so what is it about the culture of your business that’s going to encourage people to stay when they have other choices? Organisations that ignore this will see their talent finding a home elsewhere.”
Gordon stresses that reverse mentoring is pointless unless it’s part of an overall diversity, equality and inclusion strategy. “Lots of organisations have carried out reverse mentoring but then done nothing as a result of it,” she says. “That damages trust more than if they hadn’t bothered in the first place. The successful ones learn from the mentoring, identify the gaps in understanding and address them. And then it’s a continuous learning piece. It should never be a one-off.”
Someone else’s shoes
After graduating, Gordon qualified as a CA at PwC before her six years in finance roles in London and New York with British Airways. She then went on to become Finance Director for Data and Growth at the Royal Mail. She’s been at Virgin Atlantic for four years, and is currently Head of Joint Ventures and Commercial Planning.
The reverse mentoring invitation also tapped into her longstanding interest in coaching, which she studied part-time at the University of Chester while establishing Eminere. It’s a lot to manage, but the pandemic has given her the opportunity to finish her upcoming book. “I love being part of the business and I get a lot of energy from driving big projects and getting things done,” she says. “But I also get loads of energy from helping people be their best selves. If I can balance the two, I think everyone will get the best out of me.”
When Gordon started with PwC in 2006, she was part of a large intake that left little opportunity for personal interaction with senior leaders. Since then, the business world has been transformed, as indicated by the launch of PwC’s own reverse mentoring programme.
“Organisations are more in tune with the need to retain talent now,” says Gordon. “But within the chartered accountancy industry, it would be beneficial for partners to step into someone else’s shoes to see if they really are building a sustainable organisation. Are they doing enough to encourage junior members of the team to stay after qualifying? I’m a very ambitious lady but I never felt as if the partner’s journey was for me because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”
On the flip side, Gordon believes cultural diversity brings a greater competitive edge to firms that embrace it. Not because it looks good, but because cognitive diversity sharpens the intelligence and insights of the offering. “It means you’re not just thinking about risks and opportunities in the same blinkered way you always have done,” she says. “Different people think differently so you have a much broader view. That leads to better decisions. People talk about appreciating diversity, but leaders need to go further. They need to understand it, value it and welcome it.”
Reverse mentoring: How to do it right
1. Make it part of your overall strategy
Reverse mentoring should be undertaken as part of an overall ED&I strategy in order to create the most sustainable impact.
2. Ensure psychological safety
A safe and brave space needs to exist in reverse mentoring relationships so that boundaries are maintained for the mentor.
3. Take on board the feedback
Ensure that the organisation is ready to take action from the insights gained, otherwise it will lead to further disenchantment with the affected population of employees.
4. There should be an independent person doing the matching
When searching for a reverse mentor, ask someone who has the pulse of the key spokespeople within the organisation. Pick mentors who are not direct reports or even within your department.
5. Beware of role reversion
Remember that the insights of the mentor are more valuable to the organisation during this time. It is important for the mentees to be clear on their position in this relationship.
6. Give credit where credit is due
Find appropriate ways to give credit to mentors who take part – through awards or written internal/public recognition such as LinkedIn testimonials.
7. Recognise and reward mentors
Think of ways to recompense the mentors, whether through time off in lieu or vouchers. Consider their role as mentor a key competency that would put them ahead in promotion opportunities.
8. Realise that your leaders have a knowledge gap
Being empathetic to all colleagues is not just a nice-to-have. Ensure that leaders are evaluated based on their inclusive leadership capabilities.
9. Provide wellbeing support
It is possible that mentors will share traumatic experiences. Programme managers should have sources of support on hand.
10. Beware of the limitations of using individual lived experience
Reverse mentoring should take into consideration intersectionality and the range of perspectives and experiences people have within one community or characteristic.