Mentoring is invariably presented as something “done” by someone senior to someone junior, but it works both ways, finds David Payne.
Nature’s 2017 PhD survey, published this week, paints a mixed picture about mentorship, with almost one in four of the 5700 respondents saying they would change their supervisors if they could. “Recognition from an advisor” was contributed more to overall satisfaction with a PhD than other any factor.
Chris Woolston’s analysis of the data includes examples of many excellent mentor/mentee relationships. The survey’s focus was PhD students, so the supervisor perspective is missing from the data. Perhaps a follow-up survey of supervisors would be good, taking in also PIs and scientists holding supervisory positions in industry. The survey could explore how they feel about their supervisory responsibilities. Do they love it, hate it, perhaps even dread it? What training did they get, if any? Who were their role models? What mistakes have they made, and how did they learn from them? How are they supported (or not) to keep abreast of future trends, emerging technologies, future career opportunities?
But mentoring is a two-way street. Supervisors across all sectors have lots to learn from students and colleagues in mentoring situations. In 2014 pharma company GSK started a “reverse mentoring” programme, pairing a senior manager with a team of junior colleagues to discuss a particular issue issue or dilemma he or she is facing. The technique was pioneered by multinational General Electric, or more specifically its CEO Jack Welch. In 1999 Welch realised his executive team had little grasp of the internet’s potential to revolutionise the workplace and business. Five hundred CEO executives met with younger “digital natives” who had a better understanding of the fledgling technology’s disruptive potential.
GSK now has 140 reverse mentors and 40 mentees, including Steve Pyke, who demonstrated the process with a real-life session at the inaugural Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Research (EDIS) Symposium, held at The Francis Crick Institute in London last month.
Pyke, senior vice president of quantitative sciences at GSK, told the symposium that his own boss urged him to undergo reverse mentoring 18 months ago, having been through the process himself. His team is diverse and spread across 20 different countries, and his hour-long reverse mentoring sessions have helped him to address his team’s needs, he told the symposium. A typical session, for example, might be to help him develop a better understanding of the needs and challenges faced by an LGBT colleague.
At the Crick session he assembled some reverse mentors on the stage to help him consider a request from someone to work flexibly following a change in family circumstances. “This individual has young children and an elderly parent who us dependent on them,” he told them. “They wish to change their working hours but feel awkward about being open about it in the team. They don’t want to reduce their hours. Afternoons are a problem.” Because they work internationally, he added, not being available in the afternoons might cause issues for colleagues based in different time zones.
What followed was an open discussion about how Pyke might handle this request. Lily Hunt, a final year PhD student at the Crick, wondered how she would feel is the request came from a postdoc looking after her in the lab. How might their lack of availability affect her personally?
Leigh Felton, director of clinical development at GSK, wondered how the request might impact on colleagues who were single. Would this put pressure on them. Flexible working is a fantastic perk, he said, but do certain groups feel they more deserving?
Emma Collins, an HR partner at the Crick, advised Pyke to ask the individual what he could or couldn’t share with the team about the background to the request, and to clarify if the flexible working arrangement was going to be short or long term, and if it was to be a formal arrangement.
Reverse mentoring tips
In 2013 digital marketeer Zoe Amar offered five tips for reverse mentoring in a careers blog for The Guardian newspaper, advising would-be reverse mentors and their mentees to keep the arrangement informal and to ensure that your organisation understands the benefits.
Pyke told the symposium that his sessions at GSK were informal in nature, with mentors often joining by phone. There are no rules, as such, he said.
When Jack Welch introduced reverse mentoring at General Electric in 1999, he had a specific problem he wanted to solve, and it was a business challenge triggered by the e-commerce and communication possibilities presented by the internet. Since then the potential of reverse mentoring to help supervisors address their pastoral responsibilities, help team dynamics, and hone their “soft skills,” seems also to have been realised, if GSK’s experience is anything to go by.
Find out more:
- Forbes Magazine: Reverse Mentoring – Investing in Tomorrow’s Business Strategy
- Microsoft: Reverse mentoring: How millennials are becoming the new mentors
- Psychologies: What is reverse mentoring?
- Guardian: How to become a reverse mentor
- Fortune Magazine: How millennials in the workplace are turning peer mentoring on its head
David Payne is chief careers, editor, Nature.