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How we plan to use Cisco’s Reverse Mentoring programme to encourage Inclusion and Diversity

April 5, 2011 - 1 Comment

Last week, I shared with you some of the great work Cisco is doing in Europe to drive our Early in Career Network (ECN) – one of our employee resource group  that focuses on Cisco’s new hires and people who are early in their career at Cisco. Initiatives like ECN are vital in helping us promote a more inclusive work environment and diverse work force worldwide.

Another initiative that Cisco’s Inclusion and Diversity Ambassador Network is helping to drive is Reverse Mentoring. This is a formalised program where an executive or senior manager is mentored by an individual contributor in the company. In other words, our individual contributor (the Mentor) is mentoring an executive (the Mentee).

 The program is designed to provide an open and honest environment to spark discussions around creating an inclusive work environment and to foster a joint learning experience for our senior management team and their mentors. We see this environment as an opportunity to achieve greater depth of understanding and insight around our people and our business, leading to a stronger, more effective organization.

So how does it work?

  • The programme is not just about pairing up an individual contributor with an Executive. There is a selection progress so that mentees and mentors are aligned to achieve the best mix of diversity in backgrounds and experiences so that they are exposed to different people who may have different ways of working and styles. In most cases, the mentor and the mentee will come from different organisations.


  • Once they have been paired, the mentor and the mentee sign a contractual agreement with one another to ensure a rich experience and demonstrate their commitment to the mentoring relationship


  • The mentors arrange a meeting (preferably face-to-face or TelePresence) with their mentee to define a clear set of objectives and to create a plan to strengthen diversity awareness and inclusive practices.


  • It is the mentor’s responsibility to drive these one-on-one interactions for the remainder of their mutual agreement. Typically they will meet for 1 hour/month and the advice is to have a 6 months program, unless both parties wish to expand their agreement.  


So how does the Reverse Mentoring programme drive Inclusion and Diversity? Ultimately the programme aims to increase awareness of Inclusion and Diversity and strengthen diversity awareness and inclusive practices. In addition to logistical details, the mentor should use the initial meeting to ask: “Why are we doing this? What is the business objective?”

It is important for both parties to understand where the mentor can provide the executive with a perspective on how comments and decisions might be interpreted by diverse employees as well as valuable feedback on how well s/he encourages Inclusion and Diversity in his/her own team and also in his/her own business practices. In my blog “Innovation is key to becoming a ‘people-centric’ business”, I talked about how Inclusion and Diversity isn’t just about making your diverse workforce feel included; it’s also about ensuring that your customers feel included and that their voices and their business needs lie at the heart of your business. Inclusion and Diversity must be driven from both an internal and external perspective.

So some questions that the mentor might want to ask the mentee could include:

  • “What will make our coaching relationship valuable for improving Inclusion and Diversity in your organization?”  
  • “What is your biggest concern about inclusion and diversity?”
  • “Tell me about a diversity issue or challenge you have personally experienced and how you addressed it?”

And then talk about more specific questions such as:

  • Are you aware of all of WebEx’s features to encourage inclusive behaviour?” (I will shortly be posting a blog on this topic)
  • How many meetings do you host on TelePresence?
  • Do you belong to an Employee Resource Group and if not, what is your involvement with Inclusion & Diversity at Cisco? Do you encourage your employees to participate in Inclusion and Diversity initiatives such as Reverse Mentoring and Early in Career Network?

It’s also worth stressing that Reverse Mentoring is a win-win approach – there is learning on both sides. The mentee and the mentor will share best practices, tap into each others’ expertise and support each other. Giving and receiving constructive feedback and challenge and being prepared to share and respect personal experiences are joint responsibilities.

The programme has been extremely popular this year and we have 31 mentor/mentee relationships. We are planning to record a VOD in late June/early July where we will interview both mentors and mentees on their thoughts on the program, what they have learnt and achieved and also the challenges they face. It is a great opportunity for Cisco to drive collaboration, increase partnership and share knowledge and I look forward to meeting my mentee later this week.

Action for you:

  • If you have participated in the Cisco Reverse Mentoring programme, please share your thoughts on the programme below.
  • If you are not a Cisco employee and have a similar Mentoring programme at your company, I would love to hear your thoughts so please also share below.
  • If you have an Inclusion and Diversity story you’d like to share, please email it to

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  1. I agree with the value of the reverse mentoring program.

    The “mentoring” sessions that I’ve participated in have been very eye-opening in understanding how others view my approach and actions. It was also positive to have some constructively challenge your thinking while at the same time tying that back into business issues and opportunities.

    Full advocate of the program.