Ruth Lake, a Director at Leicester City Council, talks about a reverse mentoring initiative helping to identify and address barriers for people from BAME backgrounds who aspire to move into management roles.
Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) workers make up 21% of the adult social care workforce overall – a more diverse number than the overall population of England (14%). Despite this, however, the BAME community remains poorly represented at senior management level, which seems to revert to traditional roles with white males dominating.
A more diverse management workforce in social care can help us to better understand and reflect the needs of all of us in society, regardless of our status or background. Leicester City Council has been delivering a reverse mentoring programme, which could help us all to understand more about the barriers and potential bias that could be preventing those BAME workers who contribute so much to our sector, from reaching the very top. Ruth Lake, Director for Adult Social Care and Safeguarding at Leicester City Council, talks to us about the initiative…
Could you tell us more about why first got involved in the reverse mentoring initiative?
A cross-organisational group within our STP commissioned this programme from Stacy Johnson at Nottingham University with funding from Health Education England. The group contains professionals from organisations such as the NHS health trusts, local authorities, the ambulance service and hospices, working together on several different priority strands - one of which is equalities.
The programme is part of a wider equalities and development agenda. We are the first (and I think currently the only) cross-organisational group using the programme – in fact, we were the first Council to get involved.
It was important for us to take a structured approach as it is quite an innovative and novel concept of understanding inequalities. Although widely considered best practice, there has been little research to date into reverse mentoring for characteristics and backgrounds other than age, which is how the concept initially started, and we wanted to be a leading authority in piloting and evaluating a robust and comprehensive approach to this type of programme. We were keen to explore how a different approach to mentoring could support us as leaders in working with our diverse communities and staff groups.
Three directors in Leicester City Council’s Social Care and Education department are currently participating in the six-month programme.
Can you tell us how the arrangement works?
Senior managers (mentees) are assigned a mentor who is from a Black or Minority Ethnic background and less senior within the Council. The mentees and mentors meet monthly to explore themes and issues relating to the experience of BAME people as staff and within their communities.
My own mentor, Brian (pictured with me), is an experienced Youth Advocate with our Youth Offending Service. He’s been enabling conversations that might usually be quite difficult to have, but are taking place in a safe, if challenging, relationship.
What makes this different to more traditional mentoring schemes?
This is the reverse of traditional mentoring. The focus is on supporting the more senior, white manager to develop their understanding of the organisation and cultural barriers that they may create and/or which they need to address, in order for people from minority backgrounds to flourish. Importantly, it shifts the responsibility for action away from sitting only with the individual who might be experiencing barriers.
What do the mentors get out of it?
The mentors are supported to hold challenging conversations with senior leaders and managers - creating an environment for debate that wouldn’t generally exist. The mentors can share their experiences in a constructive but challenging dialogue, with a view to improving the organisational approach to workforce and service diversity.
What are the most important lessons that reverse mentoring has taught you?
I’ve been able to see that our usual approaches to exploring issues of race can be limited by our desire to not say the wrong thing. Nervousness about expressing thoughts clumsily, causing offence or being seen not to be ‘culturally competent’ can mean that we don’t really have an honest and purposeful dialogue. Mentoring has provided a way to explore issues, be challenged, learn and grow without feeling ‘professionally exposed’. I have also benefitted from some key insights about BAME experiences – from recruitment processes, to how we consult with our communities, communication with staff and the cultural barriers that exist within some communities which may impact on how people access services or engage on health issues.
What do you do differently as a result?
Personally, I’m more actively mindful of unconscious bias now and take steps to explore this rather than push it aside simply because it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge. Practically, I’ve pursued lines of enquiry about service development and engagement that I might not otherwise have picked up on and have encouraged different approaches to engagement and the use of language within this.
Why should other colleagues get involved in reverse mentoring?
The opportunity to really, honestly, explore our leadership, in the context of race and equality, is actually rather limited. The scheme also gives an important message to staff that the organisation is serious in its desire to understand the part that it plays in creating and addressing discrimination. We often talk about issues like the need for greater diversity to better reflect our communities, but if you only try the same things, you’ll only ever get the same outcome: this is something new.
 Skills for Care: The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England, September 2019, Ch 4, P66