2021 has been not just meaningful, but profound for communities of colour in the UK. We’ve seen British society make a stand with ongoing movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
We’ve also seen the outrageous abuse directed at three of England’s football stars, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jadan Sancho, following the loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 finals. While this behaviour was met with a huge backlash, we continue to see intractable resistance to change due to discrimination and inequity.
In cricket, we saw shocking institutional racism come to light. The discrimination and abuse faced by Azeem Rafiq fundamentally damaged his wellbeing and sense of self, both on and off the pitch. Elite sportspeople are in a unique position in that their place of work is in the public eye. But we can derive lessons that can be applied in our less-visible spaces.
Mentoring is a key avenue to helping disenfranchised employees to feel supported, valued and listened to within their workplace. In my conversations with elite athletes and coaches, I get a constant reminder of how mentoring helps drive individuals and teams forward. Mentoring helps people to achieve lifelong goals, remove barriers to unfurling their true talents, and bring out their best selves.
Below are three transferable insights from sports that can be applied to effective mentoring for disenfranchised employees in 2022 and beyond.
1. Bring in inspiring mentors from outside your industry
A true inspiration is English footballer Marcus Rashford. Outside of sports, Marcus is a determined philanthropist. He strives to maintain purpose off-field. The 24-year-old campaigns against racism, homelessness, and child hunger in the UK. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester for his efforts to fight child poverty. He was also the subject of a mural painted by street artist Akse in Withington.
Marcus is a clear example of the power of external perspectives, inspiration, and platforms can have on policy and progress. But it is not about a prominent name like Rashford. Lesser-known names and stories in sport are equally and perhaps even more powerful inspirations.
An example is the Paralympian who does not get to the podium but has a well of inspiration and insights from his or her journey to the upper echelons of their career. Another example is those behind the names in headlights, like nutritionists, sports psychologists, and physiologists. They form a diverse mentoring team that essentially powers the success of elite athletes.
The first consideration if you are looking to mentor individuals in 2022 should be where you are drawing mentors from. Confirmation bias is more likely to occur when the mentors you match with mentees are from exactly the same industry or have similar lived experiences.
Creating psychological safety is important, and a level of familiarity can contribute to this. But for the learning experience to be as rich as possible for both parties, look outside those who already know each other or work within the same industries. Cross-company mentoring programmes like Mission:INCLUDE and 30% Club are good resources for ideas and inspiration.
2. Engage widely and deeply
In November 2021, Azeem Rafiq spoke bravely in Parliament on the appalling racism he suffered, as he blew the whistle on systemic racism faced by Asian cricket players. He raised the issue for years. But it landed on many pairs of deaf ears across the cricket structure.
Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first Black woman to represent England in cricket, also shared some of the recent racist abuse she has been subjected to. Ebony was born in South London. The letter telling her to “leave our country” was vile. Having worked with Ebony on delivering inspirational learning experiences to corporates, I know what a powerful motivator, insightful sharer, and change instigator she is.
Listening to diverse voices and addressing concerns thoughtfully is an imperative for leaders in 2022. Mentoring can perform a vital role in giving individuals a safe space. They could discuss concerns and previous experiences should they wish to. There should also never be an expectation for them to do so. To be truly aware of what is going on within our organisations, we must listen deeply, raise our awareness, and not allow ourselves to be blind to wrongdoings not directed at us.
This open-mindedness is critical in reverse mentoring, where someone junior mentors someone more senior. At 18, Emma Raducanu has already achieved much. She is the first qualifier ever in the Open era to win a tennis Grand Slam. She entered the US Open in 2021 as the 150th seed, didn’t drop a single set in 10 matches, including three in the qualifying rounds, and went on to win. I am sure there is a lot that Emma can teach older generations about focus, staying in the moment, and striving to be the best you can be.
Similarly, matching senior leaders that might have zero practical knowledge with people in positions within the business might teach them the on-the-ground experience. Such engagement can lead to unearthing innovative ideas and open eyes to uncomfortable truths that need addressing.
3. Make it a mentoring culture, not just a siloed scheme
It was Knute Rockne, an American footballer in the 1920s and coach at the University of Notre Dame that said “one man practising sportsmanship is far better than 50 preaching it.”
During his 13 years as coach at Notre Dame, they only lost 12 matches. It is painfully obvious when a mentoring scheme has been set up as a vanity exercise to appear more diverse. Impact comes from careful consideration, proper design, and thorough execution — not from a performative ‘pots and pans’ mentoring scheme.
Despite your age, ethnicity, gender, experience, ability or any other possible form of inequity, everyone should feel like they have access to good mentors. The most successful organisations in 2022 will be those with a mentoring culture, not just a siloed scheme.
Your starting point does not have to be complicated. For example, you could start with a concept borrowed from ‘speed dating’. Give everyone in your organisation the opportunity to sign-up for a 30-minute virtual conversation with a more senior person in the business once a week or once a month. Then add more features, like bringing in external mentors. Get creative.
Strategic mentoring should have purpose, objectives, outcomes, and follow-ups. In sports, coaches train with their teams almost every day. They work purposefully and often, so much so that they become trusted like family.
The most effective mentoring relationships are those that are regularly reinforced. These relationships permeate not just ambitions within the business, but also throughout the career and life. Maybe they have entrepreneurial ambitions. These could be cultivated for the benefit of the business. Mentoring should be seen as a key tool in mitigating ‘The Great Resignation’ and must become a valued part of the business culture, not just an add-on.
Mentoring is a powerful and underutilised tool that will be fundamental to bold organisations in 2022. The strong rapport built between mentor and mentee can not only support career aspirations, but can also create an organisation-wide listening and learning culture that increases cohesiveness, innovation, and loyalty.
A lack of mentors and insufficient exposure to senior leaders are some of the primary barriers preventing underrepresented employees from getting ahead, according to research firm Gartner. Lessons and insights from sports can help elevate and accelerate your mentoring game.
Christy Kulasingam is an experienced management consultant, portfolio entrepreneur and the founder of In•Side•Edge.