Mentoring Up: A Different Approach to Leadership Development

The mentoring roles reverse, with front-line staff and faculty playing the role of mentor and the executive serving as the mentee.

Mentoring leadership

Our biennial Employee Opinion Survey (EOS) at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center showed only 45 percent of respondents thought our executive leaders were in touch with what issues they were facing. In addition, only 58 percent of respondents said mentoring was valued and encouraged.

If you asked our executives if they supported the front lines and encouraged mentoring, the response would be a resounding “Yes!” If you asked if they spend much of their time in meetings with other executives, the response also would be a resounding “Yes!” We needed a way to help our executive leaders get more direct access to the front lines to gain another perspective of what may be going on, and we needed our front lines to serve in a different capacity—not just share the issues, but try to shed light on what they see and the impact top-level decisions had.

The Solution

Our solution was the Mentoring Up program. “Mentoring Up” is a play on words in regards to traditional mentoring—consider it reverse mentoring. The program participants include front-line staff and faculty without direct supervisory responsibility, and executive leaders. The mentoring roles reverse, with front-line staff and faculty playing the role of mentor and the executive serving as the mentee. The role reversal eliminates the hierarchical structure of organizational reporting, creating an organic environment for safe, open conversations regarding recommendations and operational challenges that may impact patient care and/or employee engagement.


A taskforce of committed individuals from the organization’s mentoring council oversees the administration of the Mentoring Up program. The program is based on self-nominations as an employee must apply to become a mentor and meet the initial requirements of manager approval, no direct reports, and good organizational standing. Employees who pass this hurdle move on to the interview process. Potential mentors are interviewed by one of the members of the taskforce, using a simple rubric for scoring the interview. The rubric helps decipher candidate viability and the areas they would like to mentor executives on.

In the executive mentee application process, they share which area and/or topic they are interested in learning more about. Once the interviews are completed, the matching process begins. The pairs are matched based on mutual interest in topics or areas, while ensuring that the employee mentor is outside of the executive mentee’s chain-of-command.

The parties are notified of matching, and there is a separate orientation for both front-line mentors and executive mentees. The orientation covers expectations. Do’s are centered on focusing conversations on specific to day-to-day operations and being receptive to constructive feedback. Don’ts define boundaries and eliminate false expectations of each party. False expectations can foster assumptions that the executive mentee can mitigate the front-line mentor’s personal challenges. Following orientation, a meet-and-greet occurs where executive mentees who previously have participated in the program share the insights they’ve gained from the program, with an opportunity to help break the ice among the participants.

Each mentor has one mentee. It is recommended they meet four times a year. All participants are provided a Mentoring Up handbook that contains FAQs, reference guides, and four agenda templates to use as a guide or recommendation. These agendas have prompting questions for both parties to help facilitate the reverse mentoring role. Agenda two, as an example, is where the executive mentee shadows the mentor’s area to learn more about their daily role and area to help the mentee gain key insight.


Seeing as responses to two EOS questions initiated the creation of a reverse mentoring program at University of Texas MD Anderson, these same two questions were important metrics to evaluate the success of the program. We saw a significant improvement in the way employees answered these two questions in the subsequent institution-wide survey, which was conducted just over a year after the Mentoring Up Program began. Respondents reported a 7-point increase in the level of agreement with executive leaders being aware of the major challenges employees face and an 11-point increase in mentoring being encouraged and valued. With more than 15,000 respondents to the survey, a difference of 5 points is considered significant and meaningful.

In addition to the feedback from our EOS, we asked all Mentoring Up participants to complete a survey prior to beginning the program and upon completion. In the post-surveys, we’ve seen a 14-point favorability increase in how connected executive mentees feel to the employee “pulse” and a 25-point increase in how aware they are of major employee challenges. Front-line mentors also reported feeling more valued, with a 15-point increase, and that their leaders inspired high performance through their leadership (a 14-point increase).

Lessons Learned

The Mentoring Up program has been valuable in showing us the benefits of cross-functional knowledge sharing between executive leaders and front-line staff and faculty. Because the program itself goes against the norm where the more senior individual serves as the mentor, one of the most important tips is to communicate the objective and goals of the program thoroughly, frequently, and clearly. Staff and leaders alike should be aware of the expectations and understand the goals of the program in order to gain the most value from their experience.

Additionally, make it a priority for participants to meet in a common area if possible. We found that with having front-line staff and faculty meeting in the executive leaders’ offices, perspectives tended to shift back to a traditional mentoring practice. The staff member is no longer serving as the role of the mentor and the executive is no longer driving to obtain his or her goals as mentee. We took a further step making it mandatory to incorporate a “shadowing” meeting in our program. This dedicated time is for the executive leader to gain a realistic view into the daily operations of what it is like in the day-and-life of their mentor. The agendas further support the role of the mentor and mentee and provide the structure to reinforce the roles.

Lastly, to eliminate any possible intimidation (because at times, we can allow titles and credentials to overshadow the person), we integrated a meet-and-greet prior to the launch of the program. We call this the “ice breaker” session. This allows front-line staff and faculty and executives to all meet together in a group setting before one-on-one meetings commence. We found this allows both parties to feel more at ease prior to meeting one-on-one.

These are all tips any organization can use to enhance the value of their reverse mentoring program within their institution. And in the world of remote work, we’ve found all of these practices can occur in the virtual setting—almost naturally equalizing and humanizing the parties involved.

Carrie Anderson, MBA, is an associate ombudsperson in the Ombuds Office at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Anderson received her Master’s of Business Administration and her Master’s in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution, with a healthcare concentration, from Creighton University. Caitlin Byler, MHA, is the director of Regional Program Development at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She received her Master of Health Administration from Saint Louis University, and is a Certified Professional in Healthcare Quality and a Certified Patient Experience Professional. Courtney L. Holladay, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Leadership Institute within Human Resources at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She received her Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Industrial Organizational Psychology from Rice University, holds her license as a psychologist in the state of Texas, and earned her International Coach Federation credential as an executive coach at the professional certified coach level. Deralyn Miller, MBA, is the director of Operations for the Chief Medical Executive Office at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Miller received her Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Baylor University and her Master of Business of Administration degree from Southern Methodist University. Jovan Rowe is a program coordinator with the Leadership Institute within Human Resources at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in Psychology from University of Houston – Downtown and is a current MBA candidate at Texas Woman’s University. Janice Simon is a leadership practitioner in the Leadership Institute within Human Resources at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She received her Master’s degrees from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.