Award-winning reverse mentoring
Taking the classical approach to mentoring and turning it on its head has moved diversity issues further up the agenda. Germany’s Reverse Mentoring programme champion Anna Thwaites explains how it is helping foster a more inclusive culture at the firm.
A global initiative for a number of years, the Clifford Chance Reverse Mentoring programme has recently gained more traction in Europe and nowhere more than in Germany, where it has won a prestigious award for diversity and inclusion.
Judges in the country’s economic weekly magazine Wirtschaftwoche’s Best of Legal Awards praised the programme for being interdisciplinary, more creative about the mentor/mentee relationship and digitally enabled, allowing it to run throughout lockdowns while other similar programmes had ground to a halt.
A lot of diversity programmes focus on trying to fix issues, but ours is different. It’s about allowing an open exchange and a trustworthy atmosphere for our senior leadership to learn from our junior members about many different types of lived experience and for our more junior people to gain insights from a senior member’s years of experience.
The aim is to sensitise our leadership team to diversity and inclusion issues, whether those relate to LGBT+, gender, ethnicity and cultural heritage or disability, so we generate a more inclusive atmosphere at work and to have our leaders looking critically at our existing systems and structures to identify what can be done differently in future.
The firm has long recognised the benefits of diversity and inclusion and clients expect advice from the best possible team, which experience has shown is usually drawn from diverse backgrounds. Having a programme like this shows clients we are investing in areas we believe are important, developing our diverse talent, offering opportunities for junior people to engage directly with senior members of the firm and enabling our senior members to learn from our diverse workforce.
To galvanise interest in Germany, I worked with a range of stakeholders including the HR team, the Diversity & Inclusion Manager and the firm’s affinity networks to put together an offering that would make it easier for people to take part, backed by an effective awareness campaign that ultimately led to more people signing up. There are currently around 20 tandems in operation in Germany, with more due to start soon, so it compares well with the programmes being run in much larger offices. I attribute this relative popularity to the programme’s structure and the positive feedback being shared by those who have taken part.
In Germany, the programme is perhaps more structured than elsewhere. We have a mentor matching app to make it easy for people to sign up and we have a team that puts significant thought into who would be appropriate for each of the tandems, taking into account the expressed wishes of mentees, language preferences and personalities. We support each cohort during the 12-month programme, with kick-off meetings, reflection sessions and a media library of resources to stimulate discussions in the tandems.
We don’t limit the programme to junior staff up to a particular level and senior staff above a degree of seniority either. In fact, our experience has shown that, when the seniority gap between the mentor and mentee is not too large, there can often be more valuable learnings for both members.
Participants in the programme have praised the openness with which discussion topics are handled during the regular tandem meetings and appreciate the level of respect brought to the table around how these topics affect people differently.
The programme has given senior leaders a unique opportunity to have a direct exchange with people who have a different lived experience in the firm, which has enabled them to think differently about what they’re doing.
This has had almost a domino effect on people signing up. We have seen instances where some partners we wouldn’t necessarily expect to be interested in the programme saying ‘I’ve not done this before in my time at Clifford Chance, I’ll try it.’
For more junior members, having the opportunity to have one-on-one time with a senior, experienced member of the firm is invaluable. But it’s also primarily an opportunity for our junior people to speak about issues that are really important to them, to have a voice, to be heard and to be able to win allies.
Ultimately, it is witnessing cultural change being driven internally and hearing more junior staff reporting they see a future at the firm that continues to drive my enthusiasm for the programme.
I’d love it if we didn’t need a reverse mentoring programme or any diversity or inclusion initiatives because we are so used to doing the right thing naturally that it’s part of the firm’s DNA. I believe we want to get there, but we’re not there yet.
However, I derive a lot of personal satisfaction in seeing how people and businesses can change and hearing from our talented next generation that they believe they are supported, have a voice and are valued in the firm. That’s why I’m so heavilyinvolved in this.