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The Hidden Benefits Of Cross Cultural Mentorship

Beyond sharing their business insights, mentors who take on mentees from differing cultures accrue a surprising set of hidden benefits.

______By Anna Gonsalves

For young mentees, the potential value of a mentoring relationship is clear. Yet what do mentors derive from such relationships? Beyond benevolently sharing insights and sponsoring the business development of their mentees, it turns out that mentors who take on diverse and cross-cultural mentoring assignments accrue a wide-ranging but largely hidden set of benefits.

These benefits are considered hidden because they rarely appear in official pro/con analysis studies of mentoring relationships. However, thanks to new studies from UN Women, KMP+, and the Red Shoe Movement, fresh insights about these benefits have come to light. In the paragraphs ahead, these insights will be discussed with a view toward encouraging more senior level mentors to seek out cross-cultural mentees in the future.

Mental agility that requires few gymnastics

Often, mentor matching programs seek to build pairs that share similarities of background or interests in order to speed up trust-building and next level friendships. However, with cross-cultural mentoring, one has the opportunity to allow opposites to connect and to encourage participants to seek out individuals they might not otherwise ever be paired with in a professional setting.

According to the Red Shoe Movement, the benefit this offers to mentors is a chance for what the organization calls a “mindset tune up” and perspective refresh. Though that sounds like a harsh mechanical fix up, the reality is that this is a chance to stretch outlooks and stimulate more holistic thinking about certain problems of career growth, personal growth, and professional development.

As mentors continue in the relationship, they grow more mentally agile and adaptable. This new plasticity in their thinking can help them to be better overall at processing new information, responding quickly to volatile or unpredictable business scenarios, and making insightful connections between diverse areas of the business. The net result is a mentor who is continually refreshed and recharged by their mentees, a welcome benefit for anyone feeling “stuck” like they’ve gone a bit stale in their present career path.

Enhanced innovation environments

Another surprising and less obvious benefit of cross-cultural mentoring is the way that the relationship enhanced the innovation levels of the environment in which the mentor operates. According to the Red Shoe Movement and KMP+, by seeding their business environment with people who come from dramatically different backgrounds and perspectives, the overall level of innovation increases. This can be accomplished by matching people across borders, or across industries, as well as across gender and ethnic lines.

For example, when some of the first cross-mentoring programs started in Europe around 2000, they linked publically traded companies’ business leaders with private industry partners in different countries. Even as the mentoring pairs navigated confidentiality and protected IP, the conversations that happened helped boost the overall levels of experimentation and innovation across participant. Follow up programs that launched in 2005 and 2018 mimicked the approach to pairing with similarly impressive outcomes.

Further, in a few cases, the mentoring pairs evolved into more of a co-mentoring than a true senior/junior pair. This was particularly true when the participants came from companies that were too small to have a robust internal cross-mentoring program. By reaching out to participate in a different style of mentoring that they would have had access to “at home” in their work, these cross-cultural pairs created new pathways for information sharing, friendship, and innovation to flourish.

Expanded capacity for trust and empathy

According to UN Women, a further key benefit for mentors in crossing cultural boundaries is an expansion of their capacity for trust and empathy. This is an interesting benefit to unpack, considering the highly polarized and divided state that dominates so much of modern discourse, particularly in the international sphere. Mentors that only work with mentees who are like them or share similar backgrounds thus run the risk of narrowing their own ability to trust or empathize with perceived “outsiders” and unnecessarily limiting their own experience of the world. Within the UN’s framework of operation, building relationships of trust and empathy between agencies and across continents is essential to effectively delivery of the UN’s outreach programming. The kinds of “us vs. them” mindsets that can flourish in highly charged conflict areas or the frontlines of the developing world are a significant barrier to doing good work in the world. Education programs could help dissolve some barriers, but more effective and authentic connections were more possible through cross-cultural mentoring arrangements.

In addition to removing barriers to program delivery, the organization was encouraged to continue to invest in mentoring after finding that cross-agency pairings were helping build deeper partnerships and alliances up and down the hierarchical chain of command as well as between traditionally marginalized groups and more traditionally dominant populations. Some of the more effective efforts included multiple Euro-African mentoring arrangement, such as the Keita Club nurturing female leaders involved in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Concluding thoughts

For mentees, it’s clear how mentorship provides personal and professional benefits. Now, thanks to the latest research, it is equally clear that mentors also learn and benefit, albeit in ways that are sometimes hidden or less studied by mainstream literature. Cross-cultural mentoring relationships improve mentors’ mental agility, boost the innovation environment in which they live and work, and expand their capacity to build trust and display empathy. These uniquely valuable benefits can’t be easily acquired in other ways in the business world, and knowing about them should encourage mentors to seek out more cross-cultural mentorship opportunities in the future.