Social mobility leadership — how to build buy-in through reverse mentoring

May 2022

Are your business leaders ready for the change required for your organisation to foster belonging and true diversity?

At The Brokerage, working at the intersection of social mobility, ethnicity and professional careers, we frequently meet companies who recognise the need to affect change but lack confidence in knowing where to start. Even with an energised Employee Resource Group in place or a Head of DEI working tirelessly to gain traction; without buy-in and accountability from leaders and other influential individuals Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives fall flat, failing to achieve their intended aims.

Many organisations default to the business case for diversity, focusing on the benefits of a wider talent pool, more inclusive teams and its theoretical impact on the bottom line. But in the long-term this is rarely enough. Inequity and exclusion has been built into the fabric of our society alongside class and racial bias and stereotypical beliefs. Our brains are hardwired to prioritise the status quo, avoid discomfort and ignore perspectives that don’t match our own. This applies to all of us, so how realistic is it to expect our leaders to be an exception? How can they spearhead transformational change in the name of EDI if there hasn’t first been a shift in their own hearts and minds?

No matter how ‘strong’ the business case may be (this article is a useful perspective to understand for anyone considering going down the route of developing one) it will take something more meaningful than that if we want leaders to develop an intrinsic motivation to do challenging work. Equity, inclusion and belonging are all issues rooted in humanity and empathy and so this is where companies must start if they want to galvanise action and build momentum.

With this concept at its core, we designed and tested an innovative reverse mentoring solution based on evidence of what works and insights gathered from running programmes with employers and young people for over 25 years. In doing so our corporate partners were able to bridge the “understanding gap” between the talented working class and racially underrepresented individuals they were trying to attract and retain leading to a real perspective shift, a clear action plan and a energised commitment for change. Paul LucasChief Actuary at insurance firm Argo Global, recently took part in our reverse mentoring programme and said:

Paul felt the programme was the single biggest factor that helped Argo build traction amongst its senior leadership team, driven by their Managing Director. So how did we achieve it?

1. We helped leaders to understand and humanise the issue. Before leaping into action it’s important to understand the problem you’re aiming to address. Inequitable workplace outcomes are caused by complex interrelated factors that are easy to misunderstand. Whilst it’s important to start with objective data and theory, real contextual stories help individuals to connect with the issue on a deeper level and start to build empathy. It’s one thing to hear statistics that less privileged young people face more barriers but another to hear personal stories directly from someone you’ve built rapport with.

2. We exposed leaders to counter-stereotypical examples and disconfirmed their bias. Given our affinity bias — a tendency to gravitate towards people like us — our perspectives on unfamiliar people and issues are skewed, enabling us to uphold false views and bias behaviour. A common fallacy in the context of professional roles is that underrepresentation is caused by a lack of committed and competent working class and ethnically underrepresented candidates. Bust this myth by spending time with talented underrepresented candidates to see what you’re missing out on and build emotional affinity to people affected by bias. Research has shown that initiatives that contradict stereotypes and allow participants to connect with people with different lived experiences, are likely to be the most effective at overcoming biases.

3. They listened to people with lived experience to co-create solutions. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to address inclusion and equity in an authentic and effective way — the very people you’re trying to make feel they belong can tell you, if you ask. In doing so you can be confident that your time and efforts will be well received and impactful.

4. They started small and built momentum as a group. Dismantling the embedded structures that perpetuate workplace bias and inequity is an ongoing task and challenging work, but it can be made easier by starting with micro, manageable practices that build inclusion for everyone — e.g. introducing intentional behaviours in meetings that encourage unheard voices to have the spotlight. Experiencing and sharing the immediate rewards of better inclusion galvanises energy and commitment to do more.

5. They created a roadmap and mechanisms for accountability. It’s easier to stay the course if you’re clear on where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Not everything can be done at once so create a plan and ensure the right people are being held accountable for implementation, impact and ongoing review.

6. Hold on to your ‘why’. Progress is not linear and doing the hard work of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion can at times be an uncomfortable challenge. By articulating your personal motivations and the impact it will have on you and things you care about, this guiding ‘north star’ will help you stay on track.

Reverse mentoring along with steps 1–6 above is also a core element of The Brokerage’s Inclusive Leadership Academy; an exciting new learning and development offer for business leaders and their teams which combines reflective practices and a disruptive learning experience, giving you the honest insights and practical solutions, you can take back into your business.

If you would like to discuss the topics raised in this article further, or would like to find out more about our Inclusive Leadership Academy, please contact me:

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