Connecting a diverse project community during a pandemic

1 Dec 2021

David Cullen, Programme Director of the North London Heat and Power Project shares his insights on the project’s reverse mentoring scheme.

The North London Heat and Power Project brings together a vast expert team, all committed to building world-class public infrastructure for north London’s residents. Our team has an extraordinary breadth of expertise. We come from public and private backgrounds, spanning 14 companies across 16 disciplines – from architecture and engineering to project management, law, and communications. But we all come together as One Team – the culture which underpins everything we do on the project – driven by a commitment to build an inclusive, positive work environment that attracts and retains a diverse workforce.

To deepen our One Team culture, keep social bonds together during lockdown, and support the project’s Inclusion plan to remove barriers and learn from one another, we launched a Reverse Mentoring Scheme. This brings together leaders from our expansive team with people in the early stages of their career.

Reverse mentoring is the opposite of traditional mentoring. The leader doesn’t guide the more junior colleague, but rather there is a mutual willingness to learn. Both parties act in the capacity of a mentor as well as a mentee; so, both must genuinely want to learn from and share with the other. For me, it’s all about creating an inclusive workplace. I want to empower people at the start of their careers to share their skills with the project’s leadership team and themselves become leaders of the future. Everyone has valuable insights and skills that are vital to building the NLHPP. And for me personally, and the other leaders on the project, we can improve our own skills by learning from people with different perspectives and insights. For example, I learned especially about the challenges facing our younger team members in having their opinions and ideas heard; the need to match a young person’s responsibilities to their capability at a time when they are gaining new skills quickly; and the daily challenges faced in the workplace by our colleagues with protected characteristics.

We’re not the first to try reverse mentoring. But I believe we’ve created something special by bringing together people from different backgrounds and professions. The scale and complexity of the project we’re building requires a diverse team, and with that comes exceptional opportunities to learn and share skills.

The main driver for launching reverse mentoring scheme was Covid-19. Our team could no longer meet in our central office hub in north London, so we wanted to find new ways to connect. For some a formal structure and agenda is preferred, for others a relaxed conversation while walking in the park suits better. The result is about social glue. Through the common thread of the project, we not only built professional friendships, but a lasting exchange of skills, knowledge, and individual understanding.

Today, the scheme continues to shape our interactions and way we work with one another. People from different backgrounds are building connections that inspire others to participate, and junior members are gaining the confidence to connect with senior leaders. The initiative bridges the gap between generations to help better understand generational differences and connect in a different way. I see an increased understanding of each other (e.g. public/private sector experience), ideas sharing, and empathy of the challenges we encounter during our day-to-day. Taking part in the scheme – opening to another person and sharing one’s unique perspective – displays a real show of bravery and vulnerability that became really clear throughout the programme.

Looking ahead, I think it’s a hugely positive initiative that is much more than a stopgap solution during lockdowns. We’re looking to extend the reach of the scheme by inviting organisations outside of the project to participate. There is invaluable insight, experience and learning to be gained from reverse mentoring, and this is just the beginning.