Why reverse mentoring is the secret of a successful graduate career

Having a mentor is beneficial as a graduate but being a reverse mentor is even better for your career prospects. Discover how reverse mentoring programmes work and why you should join a graduate employer that offers one.

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Before Junshi Wace joined Mott MacDonald, first as an industrial trainee on work experience and then as a graduate civil engineer, she had never heard of reverse mentoring as a concept. ‘I don’t think many graduates would be looking out for mentoring programmes when choosing an employer to apply to – you tend to focus on the graduate salary and the work the employer does – but I think graduates should investigate whether mentoring is part of the company culture,’ she says. ‘You often don’t realise the benefits of having a mentor for your career until you’ve had one.’

However, just three years into her career, as an assistant engineer in bridges, Junshi became both a mentee and a mentor to the managing director of highways, John D’Arcy, as part of Mott MacDonald’s successful reverse mentoring programme.

What is reverse mentoring?

Reverse mentoring is a two-way mentoring process in which a junior colleague from one background is paired with a more senior colleague from a different background; both mentor each other, sharing their different stories and perspectives and learning from one another.

Mott MacDonald is a pioneer of reverse mentoring in the workplace, having established the programme in 2017. It was born out of an equality, diversion and inclusion (ED&I) initiative, designed to foster understanding between employees and senior management from different and/or underrepresented backgrounds.

For John, it did this and more. ‘The programme has meant a lot to me,’ he says. ‘One of the things I wanted to improve was my ability to instigate a conversation in certain areas. I wanted to ensure that conversations could be had across the business about what was important to colleagues at different levels and from different backgrounds.’

The mutual respect between John and Junshi is clear. They want to share their story as an example of how reverse mentoring can work and why it could be important for your own career development – no matter how much (or how little) experience you have.

Junshi meet John: joining the reverse mentoring programme

John and Junshi joined the mentoring programme in 2020. John already mentored people across the business and had heard good things about this scheme from colleagues who had previously taken part. ‘It was a summary of what I had always considered to be a good thing in mentoring relationships: a two-way exchange and a structure that helps to start the relationship,’ he says.

Any mentor and mentee can be nervous at the first meeting and that is partly why Mott MacDonald put an initial structure in place. However, by chance, Junshi and John had met before – at an internal business workshop. ‘It can be a bit awkward turning up to chat on a webcam with someone super-senior in the company that I’d never met and so I was relieved when I found out it was John. He’d made me feel completely at ease in that workshop,’ says Junshi.

The initial structure of the programme involved reverse mentors meeting (virtually during the pandemic) every six weeks for about an hour; the pair were given suggested topics and reading to help and there were check-in points with the scheme organisers to ensure everyone was getting the full benefit. ‘We did our homework,’ says John. ‘But we found quite quickly that we had rich discussions and never struggled.’

How to be a good reverse mentor

‘To get the maximum benefit from any mentoring relationship, you have to go in with a level of self-awareness and an idea of what you want to get out of it: for example, what you want to improve,’ says John.

Both John and Junshi acknowledge that this could be difficult as a brand-new graduate who is still learning about themselves in the workplace. However, the structure of the scheme helped with this.

‘The flexibility of the scheme really worked. There is a set structure that you can follow, but if you already had things that you wanted to explore (as we did) you can do so,’ says Junshi. ‘The key is to come in with an open mind and see where discussions lead.’

The benefits of mentoring: good conversations and practical outcomes

The great thing about John and Junshi’s mentoring relationship is that their conversations resulted in practical actions.

Junshi’s motivation for joining the reverse mentoring scheme was a need for career inspiration. ‘I reached a point in mid-lockdown when I felt that I needed to move forward in my career. I knew that I wanted to stay at Mott MacDonald but I had no idea in which direction I wanted to go,’ she says. ‘The benefit of the scheme for me was that they paired me with somebody outside of my division so I could explore my options.’

The conversations led her to take on new responsibilities within her division. ‘I approached my manager with a business proposal for me to start new initiatives focusing on the well-being and development of new graduate starters within our team and now I’ve been asked to take that forward for the wider division as well,’ she continues. ‘I instigated this and it’s wonderful and it wouldn’t have happened without John helping me put together that first proposal.’

They also discussed Junshi’s appearance in marketing materials. ‘I’ve had several pictures taken of me throughout my time here and they’re often used as promotional materials. I am very OK with this because I understand that the business may want to attract people who “look like me”. But I wanted to understand if John knew anything about how the marketing materials were used and what the thought process is. And this led on to some interesting and practical discussions with our marketing team.’

For John, one of the benefits of the relationship was continuing to develop his communication skills in the changing environment caused by Covid-19. ‘The pandemic put me in a position where my communication with colleagues was either in writing or me sat in a room talking to a screen without the feedback you would normally get in person,’ John reflects. ‘One of the early things we did was reviewing my communication and getting honest feedback on “Well, this is how it would feel to me if I received this from you, John”. It was reassuring to have an objective view from someone who was utterly honest.’

Joining an inclusive culture: other ways to get involved

Reverse mentoring isn’t the only mentoring relationship available at Mott MacDonald. John, who mentors other people across the business, recommends you use the company’s mentor matching service. It has to be said, however, that the culture at Mott MacDonald lends itself to informal relationship-building opportunities even if you don’t join a formal programme. John points out that Mott MacDonald is an employee-owned organisation and that leads to a shared sense of purpose that comes out in a friendly, transparent culture.

‘The best thing about Mott MacDonald is the people. The reason I wanted to stay after my industrial placement was because of how nice everyone was,’ says Junshi. ‘Even before the pandemic, you could talk to any of the senior managers in the kitchen and since the pandemic we have had webinars with them.’ You can further your opportunities for conversation by seeking out opportunities to get involved with Mott MacDonald’s early professionals network.

Whether formal or informal, both John and Junshi would point you towards mentoring as a way to build relationships, gain workplace skills and clarify your career direction. ‘I’ve had conversations with people across the business about their careers recently and it is surprising how few of them have thought about the benefits of any type of mentoring – and the advantages of mentoring are universal, whatever level you are at,’ says John.

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