By Mark A. Lee
The Reverse Mentoring program at Eli Lilly and Company at its Indianapolis headquarters started a little over a year ago, and has been a fantastic, innovative way of crossing the cultural divide.
“The Reverse Mentoring program was actually launched in our field LGBT employee resource group,” said John Patton, Diversity Consultant in the Global Diversity Inclusion office, “and it was an opportunity for LGBT employees to educate leadership about the needs of that demographic, and give them the tools to better manage and develop their employees who may identify as LGBT.”
Lilly’s PRIDE group first got together a core group of volunteers in late 2014 and the beginning of 2015. The idea was to match an LGBT individual up with a member of the upper management team at Lilly. Group members then asked themselves, “Who do you think would be open to this, who needs it – or both?” They usually went with “both.”
“We never wanted it to be a situation where if you raise your hand to be a participant as a mentee, you are somehow stepping up and saying ‘Hey, I’m full of hate!’ or something”, said Nicki Bush-Sawyer, one of the first to volunteer to be a mentor. “We wanted to make it clear that participating is by no means a way of saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I hate all LGBT people!’ So we’re strategic in having high ranking people participate, to show the many layers of leadership that we have at corporate, it’s perfectly acceptable, and it’s not a mark of shame to participate in something like this.”
Once the program began, Sawyer became a mentor to Steve Fry, Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Diversity. She is not sure how she was matched up with him, but it worked out very well.
“We wanted to be careful that none of us were mentoring someone that we reported up to,” Sawyer said. “I’m in the scientific organization, and Steve is in human resources, so we knew none of our lines of management were going to cross.”
Sawyer and Fry spent the first meeting getting to know one another, and deciding on a set schedule of how often to meet in the coming months. Using her experience as a lesbian, Sawyer tried to answer any questions Fry had about anything from bathroom laws, to how people like to be treated in the work environment; and if she didn’t know the answer off the top of her head, she would try to find the answers prior to their next meeting.
“I learned a great deal regarding LGBT experiences at Lilly from Nicki as her mentee,” Fry said, “and continue to do so as our relationship continues to grow. No doubt our LGBT employees have different experiences, and this was a great way to gain a closer understanding of and appreciation for them. In the end, it has helped me think through things Lilly can do to ensure our LGBT employees feel included and engaged each and every day.”
The mentoring didn’t stop with their monthly meetings. Fry met Sawyer’s wife and son.
“He went to the Pride Festival this June, and I think he LOVES them!” said Sawyer. “He says, ‘I have more fun at Pride events than…’ because people are just very comfortable and open and welcoming.”
Because Fry is in human resources, he is very strategic in his thinking, including considering ways of taking this program to the next level by hand-picking those who could visibly be the next group of mentees, as a way of encouraging others to participate.
Some mentors gave their mentees homework to do. One had a mentee go an entire day without using a gender pronoun for their significant other to see what it felt like. Not all members of the LGBT community are out and proud, and this allowed the mentee to see what it’s like to live in the closet in the work environment.
At the end of the day, the mentee said “Oh my God! I didn’t realize how much of your day… how much energy goes into… like, who thinks about that kind of stuff? You just want to say ‘yeah, we went to the park, and my wife and I did this, and blah, blah, blah…’ but you can’t. Having to think of ways to either change the gender of your spouse, or to leave the gender out altogether, takes a LOT of energy!”
The success of Reverse Mentoring, initially launched by Pride, has spilled over to other business units. For example, the diabetes unit is modeling the program with its minority group member associates and senior leaders in its business unit, and rolling out an entire program around it. It’s not just LGBT-focused. Seeing value in it, they have expanded on it.
Like all good programs, sometimes those who are doing the teaching get more out of it than the ones they are trying to teach. Sawyer bubbles with excitement when she talks about the program.
“I think it’s interesting,” she said. “They ask good questions. I mean, I’ve been gay my whole life; but when other people ask questions, I’m like ‘Is this true? Oh yeah, I guess we do have sensible haircuts and comfortable shoes. I don’t know why!’”
In the end, it gives her something to think about before her next meeting.
Mark A. Lee is an Indianapolis writer and photographer; his exhibition, “A Visual Journey: From AIDS to Marriage Equality,” a traveling exhibit of the Indiana Historical Society, will be on display during the Circle City IN Pride Festival, June 11.