Company Culture

Cross-Cultural Mentorship for the Global Economy

By Sarah AlexanderAugust 3, 2017

As businesses become increasingly global, it is critical for their leaders to have the cultural know-how to effectively manage team members from around the world. Joyce Tucker, vice president of Global Diversity & Employee Rights at Boeing, says, “Corporations are recognizing that in order to be as innovative as we have to be and as competitive as we have to be, we have to avail ourselves of all the talent out there…Everyone has something to contribute. Wherever the talent is coming from, we want them.”

According to leading publication DiversityInc, cross-cultural mentoring programs are on the rise: 46% more managers are participating in mentoring today than ten years ago. As more organizations recognize the strategic benefits of a diverse workforce, mentorship is becoming a powerful method for them to instill the cultural awareness necessary to succeed in today’s high tech, international business environment. Gladys Kong, CEO of UberMedia, put it well: “There is so much that we can learn from each other. It doesn’t matter what language you speak because technology is universal.”

Bridging the Communication Gap

From a cultural perspective, communication and collaboration through mentoring involves not only the nationality of one individual, but also the environment and background of their counterpart. This includes nationality, profession, position, education, gender and company culture. Culture has a great impact on the way we communicate with others.

For instance, the role of managing a team may be addressed differently in the fashion industry versus finance, or even marketing versus HR at the same organization. As discussed in Regent’s College London’s Working Paper, Italians tend to show more passion and emotions and use a lot of gestures when speaking. On the other hand, Japanese typically frown upon displaying emotions. Mismatching communication patterns like this can result in frustration and misunderstandings. One of the most impactful aspects of implementing a cross-cultural mentorship program is that it can empower employees to gain awareness about these differences and avoid potentially costly missteps.

Case Study: Mentorship at Boeing

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, employs approximately 145,000 people across the United States and more than 65 other countries. Boeing is building a workforce with leadership that can relate to the diverse demographics of its global organization and customers. The company has committed to leveraging mentorship as a technique to impart executives’ knowledge to potential future leaders and to share cultural insights amongst the company’s diverse employees to managers who must learn how to successfully lead diverse teams.

In order to achieve this cultural integration, Boeing’s mentoring program focuses on connecting mentors and mentees who are different from each other and wouldn’t otherwise meet through the normal course of business. “Teaching people to work across different cultures is teaching them to work together,” says Connie Jack, a member of the Global Diversity & Employee Rights team within Boeing’s Human Resources. “What’s important to remember is everyone is diverse, including white males. That may mean an Irish-American talking with an Italian-American. That’s diversity too.”

One example of a rising star growing in this program is Lanson Quan, an Integrated Defense Systems engineer at Boeing. Quan observes, “As a Chinese-American, I grew up in a culture that frowned upon self promotion, but rather letting one’s accomplishments alone speak for themselves.” He continues, “My goal is to move into management, and I realize I need to communicate better to help make that happen. At first, it was uncomfortable to approach someone senior to have this discussion since I thought it might not be appropriate. It’s an ongoing challenge for me.”

Quan’s mentor is helping him navigate these cultural differences. Andy Chabelal, an Indian-American who faced a similar challenge earlier in his 18 year career at the company, says of Quan, “His internal drive to succeed is there, but Lanson needs to find ways of making sure people are aware of what he wants and what he’s accomplished. To get ahead, you need to advertise yourself. I went through it myself,” Chabelal said.

Create Your Cross-Cultural Mentor Program

The Everwise team gathered lessons learned from Boeing and other companies undertaking cross-cultural mentorship programs in order to make sure both mentors and protégés get the most out of their experience. Leverage these best practices to develop your own program:

  • Structure the program

    • Set a specific length of time and meeting schedule for mentors and protégés.
  • Thoughtfully match mentors and protégés

    • Pair people who would not normally interact with each other at work.
  • Conduct pre-, mid-, and post-program evaluations

    • Implement standardized surveys for both mentors and protégés in order to track the program and ensure both derived value from their experience.
  • Require attendance at a program orientation

    • Kick off the program with an orientation session where mentors and protégés develop the skills necessary to create and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship, with a focus on cultural communication differences and other components that can get in the way of developing a healthy relationship.
  • Develop a cross-cultural curriculum

    • As mentioned above, cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and detract from mentor-protégé relationships when left un-addressed. Head this off by developing a curriculum that runs throughout the program and provides all participants tools to navigate cultural differences that can come up when conducting business with international counterparts.
  • Include protégé’s managers

    • Design the program to include periodic meetings with the mentoring pair and the protégé’s manager to help incorporate the protégé’s development goals into discussions.

Implementing mentorship programs that integrate these best practices and embrace the increasingly global nature of business will empower employees at every level of the organization to work with colleagues and clients more effectively.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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