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Civil Service

The all-round benefits of reverse mentoring

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A Brilliant Civil Service, A great place to work

Mentoring is one of the ways people learn: 20% of our learning comes from coaching, mentoring and developing through others.

The relationship of a mentor and mentee can be incredibly enriching and empowering for both individuals, creating fresh perspectives, and have a lasting impact on a mentee’s career.

Most government departments already have various forms of mentoring. However, we know that people are more likely to mentor someone who looks like them rather than someone who is unlike them.

One of the benefits of a diversity-based reverse mentoring relationship is that it pairs people who would not normally come together; these relationships are often profoundly transforming for both partners and promotes a culture of inclusion in an organisation, where everyone matters.

To mark National Mentoring Day, John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, and Bernadette Thompson, Co-Chair, Race to the Top G6/7 (for civil servants at grades 6 and 7 from ethnic minority backgrounds), share their experience of reverse mentoring.

Bernadette Thompson says:

Portrait image of Bernadette Thompson
Bernadette Thompson

Reverse mentoring John has been a truly excellent opportunity to share my thoughts, observations and recommendations on how we can help level the playing field for employees from an ethnic minority backgrounds and those with disabilities. It is really refreshing when you have transformational leaders who are ready to listen to a diverse view and act on it.

The combination of my experience in leading the Disability portfolio in the Home Office, coupled with Co-Chairing the Race to the Top G6/7 network, put me in a unique position to convey strategies we could deploy to help the Civil Service fulfil its ambition to increase representation at SCS for these two groups.

Moving on from being a bit nervous at our first meeting to today, where I can have a candid discussion with John about topics outside diversity, has been a great learning experience. After meeting monthly for six months, I feel more confident, empowered and pleased that I have been given such a valuable opportunity to make a difference.

Key benefits I obtained from the reverse mentoring relationship were:

  • increased confidence in dealing with senior stakeholdersa
  • an opportunity to sit alongside John and other senior officials at the Diverse Leaders Taskforce Board and contribute to shaping the actions fulfil representation ambitions outlined in the Civil Service diversity strategy
  • being able to “speak truth to power” in a safe space, discussing tangible solutions that could make a difference
Man and woman side by side smiling
Bernadette Thompson and John Manzoni

John Manzoni said:

John Manzoni
John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary

The Civil Service is in the middle of a big change. It’s about transforming the way we work and how we deliver services to people - and it’s essential if we’re going to rise to the challenges we face.

But it’s also about who we are.

While we’re becoming more diverse, we need to make sure we’re truly inclusive as well. And part of this is listening to, understanding and learning from each other: what is the experience of working in the Civil Service like for people who, for example, are disabled or from an ethnic minority? What barriers do they come up against? And how can we dismantle those barriers so everyone has an equal chance to be themselves, reach their potential and make the biggest contribution.

This open way of thinking should be second nature in the Civil Service. When it is, I’m confident we will be developing, quite organically, the sort of inclusive leadership we need.

Taking part in reverse mentoring certainly offers me the opportunity to examine issues like this, person to person, and to see things from a different perspective.

Any civil servant should feel comfortable to talk to any other, regardless of grade, social background, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, and learn something about themselves as well as who they’re talking to that will help them in their wider interactions.

I soon realised that honesty is vital. And I appreciated that while this might be difficult for both of us, it might particularly be so for Bernadette. The opportunity for this sort of upward communication isn’t as common as it should be. I shouldn’t have worried. As Bernadette says, she soon moved past any initial nervousness.

She told me about her own personal journey – her determination to rise to any challenge to realise her ambitions, and her support of others through the Race to the Top network. She left me in no doubt of her backing for me as chair of the Diverse Leaders Task Force. But also, in her honest critique, it was clear how she believes I can use the role to do more to further its aims, and those of other talent schemes, to help more people from minority groups work their way up to senior positions.

Bernadette has already taken advantage of the connections and opportunities that came out of our sessions. She got involved with Civil Service Group and Cabinet Office Comms to help make Civil Service Live more diverse; she’s encouraging the professions to work on improving the diversity of their SCS pipeline; and she’s promoting the G6/7 Race to the Top shadowing scheme.

Some senior colleagues may find the reverse mentoring experience uncomfortable. You really shouldn’t. Think about it from the point of view of the person sitting opposite you. Hear what they have to say. And, remember, there is a particular responsibility on the senior side of the conversation, because we have some power to act on what we learn and change things for the better.

Graphic with legend 'A great place to work'National Mentoring Day was launched to recognise the significant benefits of mentoring across the world and takes place annually on 27 October. Bernadette and John are encouraging as many senior leaders as possible to explore reverse mentoring. By understanding a different perspective, we can act on creating a more inclusive culture in our Brilliant Civil Service.


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  1. Comment by Olu Alade posted on

    Inspiring article from Bernie and John.
    Reverse mentoring puts a face to a concept, and hopefully, contact with ethnic minorities and colleagues with disabilities through the scheme will lessen unconscious bias. Given that these staff groups are less represented in the upper levels of business, it can be hard for executives to get that “face time”. Reverse mentoring helps to break down barriers and provides opportunity for both the mentee and mentor to learn from each other.
    I would like to know more about the actual benefit you have realised as a result of this programme, Bernie. Thanks for all you do – you are truly inspirational.

  2. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you for sharing with us your experience.

    This sounds like something that All Managers and future Managers should undertake as part of their personal development, so that they can appreciate how the way that they behave or how unconscious bias can impact on staff.

    Especially, with regards to ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or religious belief.

  3. Comment by Rose Odudu posted on

    Bernie, you are an inspiration to so many people including myself. You are never afraid to challenge and always the first to support. You are truely a gem to the civil service. Keep shinning and well done.

  4. Comment by c posted on

    Some managers might benefit from reverse mentoring, as it may actually give them some knowledge of how to do the job of the employees they are supposed to be managing, and the everyday problems they encounter.