Reverse mentoring allows NHS leaders to gain exposure to the diverse insights of BME staff with different lived experiences. By Ali Raza and Kiki Onyesoh
The first cohort of the Reverse Mentoring for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ReMEDI) Programme at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation Trust ran from June to December 2018, drawing over 70 participants. Senior leaders (mostly white) were paired as mentees with junior black and minority ethnic staff assigned to the role of mentors.
The impetus for the project came from NHS Staff Survey Results showing a need for trusts to renew focus on equality, diversity and inclusion and uphold the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard.
We were inspired by our mentee’s positive demeanour with BME staff and concerted efforts to increase uptake of women in the Trust Engineering team, manifest through his tireless outreach work at grassroots level
The trust’s proactive stance motivated us both to sign up as mentors in cohort one and represent the BME experience in our Capital Development department. Prior to commencement, we trained in the Resistance, Action, Compassion, Empowerment (RACE) Model of Reverse Mentoring to equip us with the skills to mentor a senior leader.
During our tenure, we met our mentee (the director of engineering) six times over a six-month period, undertaking a range of activities. These included critically appraising his performance in team meetings, exploring his personal attitudes and conducting a semi-structured interview to help him reflect on his equality, diversity and inclusion agenda and practice. (For example, we inquired “How do you celebrate difference in your department rather than simply tolerating it?”)
We were inspired by our mentee’s positive demeanour with BME staff and concerted efforts to increase uptake of women in the Trust Engineering team, manifest through his tireless outreach work at grassroots level.
This work reflects his view of the societal origins of certain inequalities. His vision has seen the make-up of the Engineering Board rise to 30 per cent BME (including women), a sparkling feat given typically low uptake of such demographics in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths based vocations.
Conventional mentoring, for which we have coined the term “Linear Mentoring” given its reliance on a top-down hierarchical dynamic between mentor and mentee, is distinct from RM in the ways highlighted in Table 1.
Table 1. Key differences between RM and LM.
Bottom-up (or anti-hierarchical)
Senior level leader with junior level staff
Immersion of mentee into the mentor’s lived experience and vice versa eg senior leader (non-BME) with middle manager (BME) (and other protected characteristics)
Mentor can impart expert knowledge of sector to offer career advice to mentee
Mentor can build empathy for their world view, helping the mentee develop self-awareness
As our mentor-mentee relationship unfolded, our interactions became more organic as we found ourselves networking with and supporting our mentee eg as a critical friend.
We would make the following recommendations for those wanting to harness RM for maximum benefit.
Functional RM pairs
Each Executive Board Level member should form one half of a functional RM pair, including but not limited to: Pair 1: senior NHS leader (non-BME) and middle manager (BME); Pair 2: senior NHS leader (Strategic) and staff member (Front Line); Pair 3: senior NHS leader (Managerial) and NHS leader (Clinical). Our trust is already leading the way on this.
Functional RM trios
Executive board members should consider working in functional RM trios eg with one BME and one front line staff member. Having two mentors can add extra insight for the mentee and improve compliance with thresholds (see Recommendation 4).
RM should be considered as an intervention for departments with historically difficult relationships impacting negatively on patient outcomes. The functional RM pairs listed in Recommendation 1 can be used as a basis for pair formation.
Thresholds and nature of RM
Based on our experience, RM pairs should be maintained over a minimum period of eight months and two interactions per month. An emphasis is also placed on the nature of these interactions, which we suggest have a leaning towards phenomenology, exploring the lived experience (Heidegger, as cited by Paley, 1998) of the mentee.
Thematic analyses across RM cohorts
RM cohorts of mentors and mentees should meet periodically to conduct thematic analyses highlighting issues perceived commonly across the cohort. This helps maximise learning from the cohort and can facilitate further research in RM.
The focus of RM interactions
RM relationships should focus on the various levels at which the senior NHS leader operates.
Our relationship fostered a range of types of interaction with our mentee, this is to be encouraged as it can build greater flexibility, learning and longevity within the relationship.
In view of overwhelmingly positive experiences of the ReMEDI Project, some may feel inclined to elevate RM to a magic bullet for promoting equality, diversity and inclusion within our trust. However, a fairer estimation of RM would hold it in high regard as one essential tool for supporting our current crop of NHS leaders and giving voice to the BME experience to influence at top level.
RM helps our trust project the powerful image of being able to transcend top-down hierarchical contours by encouraging leadership from all levels and races within our organisation. However, lest accused of seeking refuge in tick-box symbolism, let us remember that RM has delivered real value to us, our mentee and other participants too (evidenced by testimonies).
Functional RM pairings uniquely position NHS leaders to gain exposure to the diverse insights of staff with different lived experiences. This is an antidote to silo working, the breeding ground for anachronistic attitudes and policy ideas catering only for rarefied groups or stakeholders.
Ali Raza is graduate project manager, Essentia.
Kiki Onyesoh is project support officer, Essentia.