Mentoring is a key practice to improve knowledge transfer between employees. Given our global economy, many mentoring relationships today take place in an international context between colleagues from different national cultures.
When creating an international mentoring program, it is important to pay attention to the role of culture in ensuring these relationships are successful. And while many multinational employers focus their mentoring efforts on expatriates seconded from headquarters, extending this perspective to mentoring host country nationals (HCNs) can enhance the professional development of all involved.
What is intercultural mentoring?
Intercultural mentoring occurs when the mentor and mentee come from different cultures and typically brings with it many challenges, including cultural differences and language barriers. Traditional expatriates employed by companies often work in a liaison role, where they transfer knowledge between headquarters and the foreign subsidiary, enabling them to mentor local employees and receive reverse mentoring. Drawing attention to the role of culture is crucial as it can influence the mentoring experience.
For example, in cultures with more egalitarian values, such as Sweden, as opposed to India or Mexico, expatriates are more likely to receive reverse mentoring from their local HCNs. Training can help break down barriers to intercultural relationship development and should focus on understanding cultural differences, improving both parties’ communication skills, and establishing ground rules to enable open communication.
Organizations cannot afford to be artificially restrictive in their talent management practices. HR professionals should be aware of the talent categories within their organizations that could benefit most from effective mentoring; On an international level, both expats and HCNs should be included as both mentors and mentees.
When developing a mentoring program for expatriate workers, the Host Country National Liaison model is a useful framework that can encourage local adaptation and improve knowledge transfer. This model distinguishes four different roles that HCNs could take to assist expats on arrival:
- As cultural interpreterHCN can facilitate expats’ adjustments by helping them learn more about the host country’s culture and how it affects local behavior.
- In which communications manager Role, the HCN can clarify critical work roles for the expatriate and how things are done in the subsidiary. The HCN can also modify and translate the message to convey the expatriate’s intended message, but in a much more acceptable manner for local employees. For example, a Chinese HCN expert who was helping translate for her new American expat said: “He told a group of employees that they were lazy Chinese and needed more pride in their work. I knew this news would have really hurt morale, and instead gave his feedback a more positive twist. I later advised the expat to avoid such feedback in the future and he was grateful for my help.”
- In which Information Resource Broker In this role, the HCN ensures that expats have the information they need to do their jobs effectively. For example, at a Panasonic plant in Tijuana, Mexico, senior Japanese expatriates would move in and out of the plant every three to five years, while their immediate support workers, who were HCNs, typically stayed in their positions at the plant for long periods of time Duration. Explaining how it serves as a sort of organizational memory, one HCN said, “I often brief new expatriates on what has and hasn’t worked in the past,” ensuring valuable local knowledge is retained and passed on to new ones is passed on to expatriates.
- Finally, the HCN can serve as a Traditional mentor, which focuses on long-term career success and more explicitly addresses the career development needs of expatriates. For example, traditional expatriates with technical backgrounds (e.g. law, IT, accounting, engineering) are often mentored by HCNs who advise expatriates on etiquette and other soft skills to improve their effectiveness in the workplace.
HR professionals know that in many mentoring relationships, learning goes both ways. When HCNs interact with expatriates, they are also likely to benefit from the cross-cultural encounter and greater access to broader perspectives. Expats are increasingly expected to build positive relationships with HCNs and identify local talent for future roles.
For example, at General Motors in India, mentoring relationships are seen as critical to leadership development, as managers are judged on their ability to develop individuals within their team. Both formal and informal mentoring are used to develop local leaders. An American expat in New Delhi said: “We often prepare local Indian managers who have been identified as high potential and assign them as expatriates to our operations in nearby countries such as China to encourage the development of their international leadership skills. ”
Another example of cross-cultural mentoring is the program of Blue Yonder, a US software and consulting company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with more than 5,500 employees in offices around the world. High-potential HCNs are mentored by an experienced HCN manager in each regional office, and they are also offered a virtual cross-cultural mentoring session with a member of the company’s leadership team to discuss topics such as company values and performance priorities, as well as current professional challenges.
“We have quarterly regional meetings and an annual conference at headquarters where our host country managers and professionals can meet others from other business units to share ideas and get additional support,” said a Blue Yonder Australian who works in Singapore. The virtual and face-to-face meetings allow high-potential HCNs to make cross-border connections and network informally while discussing issues and ideas on current project-based tasks, he said.
Organizations recognizing the important role of HCN staff in knowledge management in foreign offices should ensure that the liaison role is filled by HCNs who work closely with expatriates and that HCNs also receive mentoring. Organizations should also ensure that expatriates are aware of the important liaison role that HCNs can play, so they invest time and energy in soliciting HCN support and building a strong local network.
An attractive way to encourage this approach is to appoint an individual to be an HCN liaison – much like a Buddy or local host – and groom that individual for the role. HCN connection roles can be shared by multiple people if needed, similar to a development network.
Organizations should also consider how best to select and prepare HCNs for their liaison role. It could be helpful for HCNs to receive language training to break down communication barriers with expatriates. Another valuable option is to offer HCNs a short stint at headquarters to increase their familiarity with the company’s organizational culture. Offering such career development support also increases the motivation for HCNs to engage in additional role-enhancing behavior towards expatriates.
Vlad Vaiman, Ph.D., is a professor and associate dean at the California Lutheran University School of Management in Thousand Oaks, California. Marian Van Bakel, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Business & Management at the University of Southern Denmark. Charles M. Vance, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Business Administration at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.