We live in a global, multicultural and vastly changing world. How can companies keep up and adapt to this modern society? One strategy that companies could look more into is reversed mentorship, a way to challenge existing norms and see the company from another perspective.
Reversed mentorship is quite a new trend, but E.ON, one of MINE´s member companies, is among the few who have already tried it. The idea of reversed mentorship came from a combination of business value for E.ON and personal engagement of the CEO, Marc Hoffmann.
This is the story of Mahmuda Samanjar Chowdhury who became a mentor to a CEO as her first job in Sweden. Samanjar worked at BRAC in Bangladesh, the largest NGO in the world. At BRAC she was a communication specialist responsible for initiated partnerships, planned new materials and much, much more. Her husband wanted to study in Lund and Samanjar faced crossroads - moving to Sweden and starting a new life there or continue where she was. After careful consideration she decided to do it, to try something new and experience a new culture. But little did she know what was waiting for her.
When arriving she quickly became frustrated since she was longing to be involved in some productive work all the time. Coming from a busy job with lots of responsibility and then suddenly having nothing was hard. Another part of it was the change in culture, and as we know Sweden is quite extreme in many ways.
“I come from a culture where people talk to each other all the time. In Sweden, you can´t sit beside someone on the bus if there are empty seats somewhere. If you do sit beside someone in a half-empty bus you might get a look saying ´why is this person sitting next to me?´ I was prepared in one sense to come to a new culture and it´s not my first time in Europe but I was not that prepared. It´s very challenging to come to this new culture. Not knowing the language, not knowing any people and coming from a developing country.”
It all started to turn around when she was introduced to the networks for expats, at International Citizen Hub in Lund she met with MINE and started to find a new network here in Sweden.
“When I came to Sweden, I felt so insecure in many ways, in my country I was a tigress, I was so well connected. Being a tigress in your territory and then coming to a new surrounding was challenging. At first, when coming to Sweden, I was not even a cat.”
The first real opening to the Swedish labor market came with a short question from MINE. E.ON announced that they were looking for “A young woman with a foreign background”. A quite unusual request. E.ON initiated a so-called reversed mentorship, where someone like Samanjar is a mentor to a person in the management, in this particular case the CEO of E.ON, Marc Hoffmann.
Settling in this new culture made her feel insecure and asking herself who would listen to her. And then with this reversed mentorship at E.ON she suddenly had a CEO that wanted to hear from her directly, get her point of view on things.
“I thought what is going on here!?” Samanjar laughs when thinking back on that moment.
It took Samanjar a while to get started and fully understand what her role at E.ON was. E.ON had worked with reversed mentorship before, but each mentorship relation is unique and needs to find its own pace. She met with Marc Hoffmann once a week to discuss different topics. Every time with the focus on Samanjar’s view on the preselected topics. For example, they had discussions about the European election as well as Swedish election and future scenarios in business, selling strategies in Bangladesh for the companies, how E.ON is attracting new talents, sustainability, working with limited or existing resources and coming out with the best impact, etc. Questioning and discussing decisions, existing process, impact, and long-term benefits, etc. Everything from Samanjar’s perspective. From the beginning she started meeting with other staff members at E.ON, to get a full grasp of the energy industry in Sweden and the challenges E.ON is facing as a company.
“I would observe, look at a problem or a topic and then back up my observations with information, asking what, why and how?”
She adds that she would stand in front of Marc during their talks with proper back up of information so that if she got challenged by Marc she could reply. During her stay at E.ON, she had more than 40 individual talks with different staff members from various departments.
As I see it, she had a multifaceted role: first observing and gathering information then analyzing and adding her personal view before discussing with Marc. New perspectives were constantly presented to the CEO as a fantastic opportunity to develop the company and see things that you normally don´t recognize. It´s just what we at MINE try to underline when we talk to companies about inclusion and diversity: it´s very hard to see things and challenge current norms and approaches if you don’t add other perspectives. Norms are often invisible to those who are within the norms. Talking to Samanjar I can see how this reversed mentorship made her more confident. The way she talks about E.ON surprises me. When we at MINE first got the request, I thought it would be a person there a few days a week to talk about cultural differences. That was not the case. Today Samanjar talks about E.ON like her company, tells me how much she now knows about the energy industry and how much she learned about how a Swedish company works.
Samanjar’s story shows a lot of what I recognize when talking to foreign-born academics moving to Sweden. The feeling of confusion and not being yourself. In Samanjar’s case the position at E.ON turned the table and through hard work, during her months there she is once again a tigress, or maybe a lynx, now when in Sweden.
Other companies need to see the value in reverse mentorship, just think about how your company can benefit from broadening perspectives. We live in a global world and economy - let´s start acting like it.
By Ivar Nilsson