Global HR Agenda: Mentors Without Borders

Global mentors can give employees a different perspective on business matters.

By Stephanie Overman Mar 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, March 2004 Mentors play an important role in enhancing a high-performing employee’s productivity and in guiding his career. In a traditional mentoring relationship, a junior executive has ongoing face-to-face meetings with a senior executive at the corporation to learn the ropes, set goals and gain advice on how to better perform his job.

Before technological advances, mentoring programs were limited to who had the time and experience within your organization’s walls to impart advice to a select few people worth that investment.

Technology has blown away those constraints. Today, it is much easier to maintain a long-distance mentoring relationship through e-mail, telephone and video-conferencing. And that technology means HR isn’t confined to its corporate halls when considering mentor-mentee matches.

That doesn’t just mean New York-Los Angeles matches. When looking for a mentor, or when developing a mentoring program at your organization, consider the world outside the United States’ borders. Global mentors can prove an invaluable resource to individuals while benefiting your organization overall. Those benefits include offering a global perspective on business issues, preparing a mentee for a trip or assignment abroad and sharing company knowledge on a global scale.

Companies that are truly committed to training and development use long-distance mentoring because “that way it doesn’t matter where in the world [the mentors] are, they look for the best,” says Linda Phillips-Jones, a psychologist and principal consultant with The Mentoring Group based in Grass Valley, Calif. Global interaction is “only going to increase,” she says, and “mentoring is the perfect place to learn.”

Some Kinks

Even though a mentor and mentee may be separated by oceans and borders, they still should try to meet in person. With global mentoring, Phillips-Jones recommends “some face-to-face time early on, then distance mentoring will work fine” via e-mail and telephone. But some issues regarding culture, language and a lack of face time do need to be ironed out.

“Technology can help bridge cross-cultural gaps, but you have to address them,” or the mentoring partners risk making inaccurate assumptions, says Carol B. Muller, executive director of Mentor Net in San Jose, Calif.

Muller urges HR managers to provide plenty of direction for people in global partnerships to help them navigate those cross-cultural differences. And she urges people involved in these partnerships to take full advantage of telephone, e-mail and video conferencing because with global mentoring “you aren’t going to have too many face-to-face meetings. These are different [interactions], but they’re not less than face-to-face meetings.”

One distinct advantage global mentor partnerships can have over domestic ones is that communications are largely written. A person’s written skills in a foreign language are sometimes stronger than their speaking skills, Muller says, adding that writing also can help the parties think through their responses. “They don’t have to worry about speed. So, the act of writing may enable better substantive conversation to occur” when there are language differences, says Muller.

Because Dow Chemical Co. requires that all employees be fluent in English, they can communicate with each other across lines, and the long-distance aspect of the mentoring partnership “makes both parties be a lot more focused on what they want out of the relationship,” says Frank T. Morgan, Dow’s global director of executive development and leadership in Midland, Mich.

Global mentoring is “more work. You have to plan ahead. You have to listen hard,” adds Phillips-Jones, author of The New Mentors and Proteges (Coalition of Counseling Centers, 2001) and The Mentoring Guide (The Mentoring Group, 2000). “But it works; sometimes it works better because you have to prepare” more for these indirect meetings.

Mentoring Benefits

Inexpensive training, expanding beyond cultural norms and preparing an expatriate are all benefits to an effective global mentoring relationship.

Phillips-Jones says she recommends that the mentee manage the relationship—making sure meetings and calls are scheduled, sending an agenda and following up with a summary of the discussion. “It’s great for the mentor to see how the mentee handles all that,” Phillips-Jones explains. “That way the mentor can give feedback on the person’s skills.”

But while it’s common for a mentee in the United States or Canada to take the initiative, she adds, in Europe and Asia, it’s much more likely that the mentor will take the lead. So it’s a learning experience for the mentors as well. “It’s good for them to get exposed to these assertive mentees who have their goals set. They’re used to a more reserved approach.”

When organizations are strapped for training dollars, they can supplement support with mentoring. International charitable and non-profit organizations have taken the lead on global mentoring for this reason, according to David Clutterbuck, author of Everyone Needs a Mentor (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2001). He is senior partner with Clutterbuck Associates in Burnham, U.K., and a Mentoring and Coaching Research Group professor at Sheffield Hallam University.

Large charitable organizations “are looking at how to support people in the field. It’s very expensive to take training out to these people, so charities are finding better ways of doing it,” and mentoring is one answer, says Clutterbuck, who has worked with organizations such as the International Labour Organization and the World Bank.

Global mentoring also can help prepare executives who must travel to regions with vastly different cultures or help prepare expatriates leaving on assignment.

Having a mentor who is based in the country where the mentee eventually expects to be assigned really helps to smooth cultural transitions, says Morgan. “You can address these things beforehand without causing embarrassment to yourself, without going to Saudi Arabia and showing the sole of your shoe,” which is an insult in that culture.

Terri Morrison, president and owner of the firm Getting Through Customs in Newtown Square, Pa., and co-author of Dun and Bradstreet’s Guide to Doing Business Around the World (Prentice Hall Press, 2000), says a good mentor can help with such basics as how to address people, how to make appointments, how to interview people and how to structure meetings.

“The conventions are different. How do you make contacts? Usually in the United States you look at an organizational chart and pick the phone up—you don’t do that in other countries. They have hierarchies,” she says. “Mentors can tell how they make decisions—it’s not done the same way in Asia as in the United States. It’s not done quickly, linearly.”


The hardest part about any mentoring effort is the matchmaking, Phillips-Jones says, and global programs are no exception. “No one has solved it to perfection yet.”

The most common technique is to have managers who want to be mentors submit profiles and have potential mentees submit information about the jobs they want to move into. Then mentees can search the mentor pool to see who has the expertise they need, interview potential mentors, make choices and submit a ranked list of candidates.

“The more things you can match, the better. If you have people fill out applications, ask as much as possible about their interests,” says Phillips-Jones, adding, “that’s the way we helped Microsoft set up their program. They started about three years ago with 28 pairs, now they have 2,000 pairs.”

Phillips-Jones suggests that a partnership last about one year, with the opportunity to renew the arrangement. The ability to use technology to set up matches and even to offer training about how mentoring works has been a real boost for distance learning, she adds.

But it’s always difficult to find enough mentors, so a company thinking of setting up a global mentoring program should ease into it, Phillips-Jones suggests. “Start with up to 20 pairs for your pilot and get the wrinkles out. That will help sell your program.”

Dow’s Morgan can attest to the mentor shortage. “We downsized and collapsed our management structure, so a lot of middle management who used to be a source of mentoring is gone.” At the same time, he adds, “we went global in a big way so we need to do mentoring long distance.”

Dow installed an online tool that permits virtual mentoring around the globe, across time zones, Morgan says. “If I’m going to consider moving to Hong Kong, I can find a mentor in Hong Kong; if I’m doing business in Russia, I can find someone.”

Dow created the mentor database “to take the politics out. People can sign up and put information in, and it can be searched by a mentee without the possible mentor ever knowing. That takes the sting away if a person is not selected,” he says.

More than One

If there is a shortage of willing and able mentors, Phillips-Jones suggests group mentoring. “You can maximize mentors that way,” she says.

The good news for mentors is that “it doesn’t have to be a big commitment of time. A little goes a long way. Our research finds that as little as an hour or two of interpersonal contact a month is enough, as long as you push the mentee to have goals,” she says.

In fact, it’s best if the mentor plays the role of “learning broker” rather than trying to be a full-time instructor.

“The mentor should do the directing,” says Phillips-Jones. “If you are a mentee who is interested in a global assignment, I could ask: How could you and I find out what it would be like to work in Australia? We would make that our project, but it would be mainly the mentee’s project.”

It’s also beneficial for a mentee to have two mentors—a domestic one and a global one. Clutterbuck refers to this as “surrogate mentors.” When a high-potential employee is given a temporary overseas assignment, the individual keeps his primary mentor in the home office and acquires a surrogate mentor on location.

Direct supervisors usually don’t have a problem with their reports having long-distance mentors because the supervisor’s “role is more coaching on the current job performance and mentors tend to deal with issues the current boss isn’t familiar with,” Morgan adds.

Karen Shepard Jackson, North American sales and marketing manager at Dow in Lansing, Ill., is serving as a mentor to others and is a mentee herself.

Mentoring across borders “does open up more possibilities,” she says. “At Dow we’re so connected, it’s very easy to do if you’re willing to get up early or stay up late.”

She says global partnerships work when the people involved have clear goals and carefully structure the relationship. That also makes it easier to end the relationship, Jackson adds. “You measure your original goals as you go through the relationship. You track your progress. Then when you’ve met that goal, it makes sense to end the relationship. There’s not any discomfort.”

Stephenie Overman is a Chatham, N.J-based freelance business writer.

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