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Unexpected lessons from reverse mentoring

20th June 2023

Head of Department reverse mentored by a postgraduate student – a conversation reflecting on unexpected lessons learned and benefits.

Kay Anyachor and Monika Foster

Introduction

Reverse mentoring originates in industry and can be a very powerful tool for senior leaders to upskill and to get an insight into the skillset and experiences of junior staff. In Higher Education, reverse mentoring can be beneficial for staff and students to facilitate insights in institutional knowledge in a growth-focused relationship.

Professor Monika Foster joined Northumbria University in January 2023 as Head of Department of Marketing, Operations and Systems in the Faculty of Business and Law. She had wanted to gain some implicit institutional knowledge, how students interact with the courses and the university to help develop her own skills and leadership. As there has been a significant growth in the international postgraduate student numbers in the Department, Monika was especially interested to learn more about their experience. Building on the earlier experience of being reverse mentored, Professor Foster, has approached postgraduate students to reverse mentor her.

Kay Anyachor, who is a Postgraduate student on MSc Global Logistics Operations and Supply Chain Management, has stepped forward to mentor Monika. Monika and Kay have worked together on reverse mentoring since February 2023. Here they share their experience, the unexpected benefits they achieved, and the lessons learned, which might be useful for other staff and students wishing to try reverse mentoring.

Reverse mentoring

(Kay) When you first approached the students to reverse mentor you, what did you want to learn or develop as a leader?

As a new Colleague in the University, I have been learning quickly about the Department, the Faculty and the University from many different Colleagues and sources. As a Head of Department, I was also keen to get to know the students who study the courses in our Department. We have such diverse student population, especially our postgraduate students, so I’ve thought it would be useful to get to know their perspective, why they decided to study with us, how they enjoy their study, but also, selfishly, I was looking to pick up some ‘insider knowledge’ from the students too. When I joined in early 2023, our postgraduate students were nearly half way through their study by then, so had a good amount of institutional knowledge I was willing to learn from.

(Monika) Thank you for stepping forward to be my mentor, Kay. What were your expectations of reverse mentoring?

Going into that first meeting, I was not sure what to expect. I was a bit nervous to be asked to mentor a senior leader in the university, but I was certain that whatever the relationship evolved into, I was ready to give my best to it. I was sure it was going to be an excellent learning opportunity for me.

(Kay) What do you think you’ve learned from reverse mentoring? Have there been any unexpected lessons from this cohort of reverse mentoring?

This is my 3rd experience of reverse mentoring with students. The first year I took part in reverse mentoring, I was reverse mentored by a final year, international undergraduate student. Last year I was reverse mentored by two first year, home students. This year I have been very fortunate to be reverse mentored by you, a mature, international postgraduate student and this has been a truly inspirational experience, thank you!

I planned to find out some institutional knowledge such as how postgraduate students approach learning on our courses, their expectations and their takeaways from the courses, and it was great to learn about these. I also really enjoyed learning how students engage with the study on campus, what else they do on campus, at the university, in the city. What was unexpected for me is a huge appreciation how much knowledge and experience a mature student brings with them to study on our postgraduate courses. I also learned so much about the Nigerian culture and the similarities and differences between the UK and Nigerian academic culture, as well as the insights into what make Nigerian students engage well in the class, what they find odd (having to keep quiet!) and how much they enjoy being lively and noisy.

(Monika) Although we started by you mentoring me, I think we have achieved a good balance of some benefits to you too. Reciprocal mentoring is when both parties benefit. What do you think are the benefits for you?

The main benefit to me has been in demystifying university leadership. I have gained a better appreciation for the work it must take to keep this entire University organism alive. You have shared with me some of your personal values that has helped you achieve success in academia and business leadership, especially as a female, international leader. As someone who is interested in working in business operations, this has been an invaluable interaction for me.

(Monika) That’s great, I am glad you found the experience helpful for your own development. What skills and knowledge can you take away from this relationship? Was there any unexpected learning for you, too?

The first skill I have learned is obviously about reverse mentoring. I really enjoyed being a mentor, asking questions, challenging you to think of the answers and to reflect on what you do as a leader. The reverse mentoring has been a conversation, a learning experience for both of us. I have been able to appreciate the work you do, and I see its application in other business areas apart from academia. As a retail business manager, I always found that there was a disconnect between the senior management team and the staff on the shop floors and I think that the idea of reverse mentoring is essential to expose the senior leaders to an honest assessment of operational processes from the people responsible for implementation.

Secondly, this experience has improved my confidence levels with research – this was unexpected for me. I find that this interaction has piqued my interest in asking questions and trying to get the answers in a format that can be documented and replicated. Learning about your previous research made me realise that research could be as simple as seeking to understand everyday phenomenon especially in business operations and it will still be enough. I feel confident that I will do well with my dissertation.

And on a personal level, you have taught me to put myself forward for opportunities without fear of rejection. I felt valued and happy I could share my knowledge with a leader in the university.

(Kay) In terms of your leadership of the Department, what did you learn specifically from our reverse mentoring and how will you take it further?

As mentioned earlier, I gained many insights, an institutional knowledge from the student’s perspective, which I’d like to use to further enhance our courses and to  engage with our students,  especially international students. We attract growing numbers of diverse international students on pir postgraduate courses and wish to make them relevant and connected to the students. It is very important that we reflect our students’ international perspectives in the course content such as on MSc Global Logistics, Operations and Supply Chain Management. I would like to explore how we build in space in the course curriculum for the students to share their expertise, experience and knowledge which they bring with them. Perhaps we can also look to create a learning community for our postgraduate students (home and international) on campus to support a sense of belonging and to celebrate different cultures and backgrounds.

On a personal level, as a leader, I challenge myself to be a mentee and to learn new perspectives. I enjoyed our conversations where you asked me about my leadership, to explain my plans, my research, how they complement each other. At the time, I was developing my Female Leadership guest lectures and by discussing my work with you, I was able to see clearly where my strengths where, what I needed to improve, which was very helpful for me as I was delivering them to different audiences of international students. 

(Kay) What advice would you have for other senior leaders who may consider the reverse mentoring approach to student engagement?

Give it a go! It takes planning and you need to be clear about your own goals but the learning from this is phenomenal. Start reverse mentoring with an open mind, as there might be some unexpected knowledge and benefits you might get as you work with the student. You never know what you might learn!

Written by Kay Anyachor student on MSc Global Logistics, Operations and Supply Chain Management and Professor Monika Foster Head of MOS Department, Faculty of Business and Law

To find out more about Reverse Mentoring read ReverseMentoring: Untapped Resource in the Academy? byLibby Springer 

 

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