Mentoring is a key practice designed to increase knowledge transfer among employees. Given our global economy, many mentoring relationships these days are taking place in an international context between colleagues from different national cultures.
When creating an international mentoring program, it’s important to pay attention to the role of culture to make sure these relationships are successful. And while many multinational employers focus their mentoring efforts on expatriates who are sent from headquarters, broadening this view to include mentoring of host country nationals (HCNs) can enhance the professional development of everyone involved.
What Is Intercultural Mentoring?
Intercultural mentoring occurs when the mentor and the mentee come from different cultures, and it typically evokes many challenges, including cultural differences and language barriers. Traditional company-assigned expatriates often work in a liaison role where they transfer knowledge between headquarters and the foreign subsidiary, which allows them to mentor local employees as well as receive reverse mentoring. Paying attention to the role of culture is critical because it can influence the mentoring experience.
For example, expatriates are more likely to receive reverse mentoring from their local HCNs in those cultures with more egalitarian values, such as in Sweden, in contrast with India or Mexico. Training can help reduce barriers to the development of the intercultural relationship and should focus on understanding cultural differences, increasing communication skills of both parties and setting ground rules to enable open communication.
Organizations can’t 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; within the international arena, both expats and HCNs should be involved, both as mentors and mentees.
When developing a mentoring program for expat employees, a useful framework is the Host Country National Liaison model, which may promote local adjustment and improve knowledge transfer. This model distinguishes five different roles HCNs could fill to assist expatriates upon arrival:
- As Cultural Interpreter, the HCN can facilitate expat adjustment by helping them learn about the host country’s culture and how it affects local behavior.
- In the Communication Manager role, the HCN can clarify for the expatriate critical work roles and how things are done in the subsidiary. The HCN may also alter and translate the message in a way that communicates the expatriate’s intended message, but in a much more acceptable fashion for local employees. For example, one Chinese HCN professional, helping to translate for her new American expat, recounted, “He told a group of employees that they were lazy Chinese and needed to have more pride in their work. I knew that this message would have really hurt morale, and instead gave a more positive spin to his feedback. I later advised the expat to avoid such feedback in the future, and he was grateful for my help.”
- In the Information Resource Broker role, the HCN makes sure expats have the information they need to do their jobs effectively. At a Panasonic plant in Tijuana, Mexico, for example, senior Japanese expatriates were rotated in and out of the plant every three to five years, while their immediate support staff, who were HCNs, typically remained in their positions at the plant for a much longer duration. In explaining how he serves as a kind of organizational memory, one HCN said, “I often inform new expatriates about what has worked in the past and what didn’t,” thus making sure that valuable local knowledge is preserved and transferred to new expatriates.
- Finally, the HCN can serve as a Traditional Mentor, focusing on long-range career success and more explicitly addressing the expatriates’ career development needs. For instance, traditional expatriates with technical backgrounds (e.g., legal, IT, accounting, engineering) often are mentored by HCNs who provide etiquette and other soft-skill advice to expatriates to enhance their workplace effectiveness.
HR professionals know that in many mentoring relationships, the learning goes both ways. When HCNs interact with expatriates, it’s likely they also benefit through intercultural exposure and greater access to broader perspectives. Expats are increasingly expected to build positive relationships with HCNs and identify local talent for future assignment.
At General Motors in India, for example, mentoring relationships are seen as crucial for leadership development, to the extent that managers are assessed on their ability to develop individuals on their team. Both formal and informal mentoring are used to develop local leaders. Said one American expat in New Delhi, “for local Indian managers identified as high-potential, we often prepare and assign them as expatriates to our operations in nearby countries, like China, to promote the development of their international leadership abilities.”
Another example of intercultural mentoring is the program created by Blue Yonder, a U.S. software firm and consultancy based in Scottsdale, Ariz., 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 intercultural mentoring session with a member of the company’s executive leadership team to discuss such topics as company values and performance priorities, as well as current work challenges.
“We have quarterly regional meetings and an annual conference at headquarters where our host country managers and professionals can meet others from other company units to share ideas and gain additional support,” said an Australian Blue Yonder expat working in Singapore. The virtual and in-person meetings enable high-potential HCNs to create cross-border connections and network informally while discussing problems and ideas on current project-based assignments, he said.
Organizations that acknowledge the important role played by HCN employees in knowledge management at foreign subsidiaries should make sure the liaison role is taken on by HCNs who work closely with expatriates, and that HCNs receive mentoring as well. Organizations also should ensure that expatriates are aware of the important liaison roles that HCNs can play, so that they invest time and energy into soliciting HCN support and build up a strong local network.
An attractive way to encourage this approach is to appoint one person as the HCN liaison—similar to a buddy or local host—and prepare that person for the role. HCN liaison roles can be shared by several people if necessary, similar to a developmental network.
Organizations also should consider how to best select and prepare HCNs for their liaison roles. It could be helpful for HCNs to receive language training to remove communication barriers with expatriates. Another valuable option is to offer HCNs a short stay at headquarters to increase their familiarity with the company’s organizational culture. Offering such career development support also boosts the motivation for HCNs to provide extra role-helping behaviour toward expatriates.
Vlad Vaiman, Ph.D., is a professor and associate dean at the California Lutheran University School of Management in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Marian Van Bakel, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Department of Business & Management at the University of Southern Denmark. Charles M. Vance, Ph.D., is a professor at the College of Business Administration of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.