Recognising Our Cultural Differences When Mentoring Internationally

In this article, Simon Brown shares his experiences with mentoring others from different generations, countries, cultures and backgrounds. Keep reading to discover what he learned.

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Mentoring can be a great two-way learning experience for both the mentee and the mentor. PushFar mentoring platform is global and can give you access to potential mentors or mentees across the world.

Individuals have registered their profiles on the PushFar platform from over 180 countries out of the world's total of 195 countries - and that's an amazing 92%!

So, if you are looking to widen your experiences and grow your network it could be a good idea to seek a mentoring relationship with someone who lives in a different country to your own.

Especially given that PushFar can offer video meetings anywhere where the local technological infrastructure allows and at any time. So, no need to commute to that Coffee Bar.

In my case, as a graduate of Cultural Studies and a Human Resources professional with a passion for Diversity and Inclusion, I was keen to work with mentees from other countries, with the perspective that not only could I help them but that I could learn from them too – about cultural and inter-generational differences.

Culture is a concept that encompasses the social behaviour, institutions and norms found in human societies as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. Culture is often associated with geographic regions or countries and can also be described as a company or organisational culture where core values and leadership competencies and ways of working are strongly identified, aligned to vision, mission, strategy and reinforced by reward, incentives, and performance management.

I have worked internationally as an HR Director for two large global companies, GlaxoSmithKline, and The Coca-Cola Company where the company culture was particularly strong and overlaid with country cultures with the exception of factors such as the local economic market, language, and legal regulations. I first became involved in coaching and mentoring in these open cultures.

As a white British male from an aspiring middle-class background and by birth classified as a Baby Boomer Generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) I was looking to continue and extend my learning in the past few years by reaching out to people who are different to myself both in terms of generation, country, culture and background, and gender. Let us look at what I learned about each of these.

1. Generations

Thanks to PushFar I have enjoyed mentoring experiences with people from Generation X (born 1965-1980), Generation Y (Millennials born between 1981 to 1994 – the generation of my two children) and Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2009). It's important not to generalise about generational categories but equally important to acknowledge that each generation has had different experiences and has viewed the world through different lenses based on this. Socio-economic and geo-political trends, historical events, legal rights changes and local circumstances have impacted the generations differently and what is common ground for a Baby Boomer with another Baby Boomer, is quite different between a Baby Boomer and a Generation Z, to take just one example. The concept of career, values and beliefs can vary for each generation.

I initially found mentoring with Generation X and Y (Millennial) mentees easier at first than with Generation Z. That is because of decades of common experiences with Generation X and in the case of Generation Y through the lived experiences with my children - as a starting point. So, the stretch and an important one to make for leaders and employers in today’s world of work - is to learn about the paradigm of Generation Z as that is what will enable an understanding of the conditions for providing an environment which is engaging for those now starting out or early in their careers.

2. Country and Culture

Again, thanks to PushFar I have connected with people from different continents – Africa, Asia, Europe, Australasia, and America.

A few points to look out for and appreciate here are:

• Time Zone:
I have learnt that it is difficult to maintain regular meetings for mentoring if the time zone differences are too wide. We are busy enough with our daily calendars and work commitments as it is without this additional issue. Anything more than 6 hour’s time difference didn’t work for me or them, and the best advice I could give to an Australian mentee is to seek a mentor who was geographically nearer to their time zone - which they did.

• Cultural Differences: In the British and American cultures, it is a normal practice for mentoring meetings to be conducted one-to-one in a quiet meeting room setting so that a private and confidential discussion can be held. However, for mentees I have met in Kenya, Nigeria, India, and the West Indies I have learnt that it is normal for them to have a mentoring meeting with you whilst they are in the street, in a restaurant, a school playground, on a bus, or even feeding the chickens on the farm. I think there are in some cases economic reasons for this - as the mentee is not in control of where meetings take place and don’t have the authority or access to book a quiet meeting room. Also, as advised by a senior Nigerian colleague of mine, in African culture, mentees are proud that they have a mentor and want to show this off to their peer group: “Hey look at me, I’m now talking with my career mentor!”

Not everyone can get a career mentor in Nigeria, Kenya, and some other African countries, especially in a context where paid jobs are rare, and unemployment is high for young people.

For example:
the youth unemployment rate in Nigeria increased to 7.2% in the second quarter of 2023, rising from 6.9% 3 months earlier. And between 2014 and 2023 it had averaged 23.5% with a record high of 53.4% at the end of 2020. Many young people are therefore looking to emigrate to countries which currently offer better employment prospects. But this in turn puts pressure on those richer economies in Europe and America who may have jobs to offer but also are politically swayed to reduce immigration.

So, therefore support for the aspiring young via mentoring, coaching, apprenticeships and paid internships to invest in human capital development for the future with a focus on building capability within the home country community is increasingly important here.

At PushFar we can really help out as change-making mentors to offer this service and also recognise the different meeting backgrounds which are normal for diverse cultures and circumstances. This is why I have chosen to be an Ambassador and Mentor for the Richard George Foundation - a charity which focuses on economic empowerment and career progression for young Africans.

3. Technology Infrastructure and Access to Communications

Access to Wi-Fi and ownership of laptops is easy in Europe, the Americas, Australasia, and other parts of the world, where the technology infrastructure and cost to purchase communications technology is affordable. But that is not the case in many countries in Africa or Asia, where Wi-Fi is not so easily accessible or even stable.

In the West in 2024 we tend now to think of access to Wi-Fi /Internet as top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but for those other countries food and in some cases, shelter are still top of the Hierarchy of Needs.

Buying a laptop costs several full months of salary in those African countries, in a context where access to jobs to earn a salary to purchase that laptop is much more limited than in the West. So, a laptop is like gold dust in Nigeria and Kenya, and I had four cases where my mentees and prospective mentees could not meet me because their laptops had been stolen. And so, it is really important to be aware of and embrace these cultural factors and for this British mentor, I have learnt that mentoring meetings may need to happen on a mobile phone, over WhatsApp, and with diverse and interesting background noises. And that is just a fact.

4. Communication Style

Again, without wishing to generalise I have found from my own international work experience that different countries' cultures tend to choose to communicate in different ways.

For example, a direct communication style is often preferred by Americans, Germans, and Dutch nationals - who say it as it is.

UK nationals may be more inclined to talk around the topic or use irony to express or suppress direct comments. Interesting. A word with different connotations.

In India, China, and Japan, direct communication to say exactly what you think and to make quick decisions, is not the norm, so if mentoring with mentees from these countries be especially patient to build relationships, trust, and openness. Meeting face-to-face where possible in out-of-work environments can help to enable more informal exchanges there.

5. Gender

I have mentored four males and sixteen females over the past 4 years -all via the PushFar platform. For me, as someone passionate about equality and equal opportunity, this is the easiest area of difference to deal with and irrespective of gender it is important to consider and respect without being intrusive in what else is going on in their lives and what other commitments your mentee has to deal with as well as having regular mentoring meetings. I enjoy meeting with people of all genders and sexual orientations, relating to them and learning from our two-way exchange. If we are serious about diversity, equity and inclusion at work and in society, mentoring by matching pairs of differences is a very practical, real and actionable way to make this happen and to turn our policies into action and sustainable ways of working. I am also an advocate of aspiring women leaders and seek to help overcome discrimination at the C-Suite level of Society. Recently I was selected as a mentor for - a not-for-profit organisation based in the USA that also utilises the mentoring platform.

Personally, as a mentor, I always aim to be responsive to thoughtful requests from mentees asking me to be their mentor, and I never reach out first to prospective mentees offering to mentor them as I feel this is rather hierarchical. Selection should in my opinion come initially from the mentee. This way I ensure that they choose me based on what I can offer professionally as a mentor, and in our first introductory meeting it is then a case of checking out whether the prospective match is a good one and for the right professional reasons for both parties. If, however, the person does not have a professional profile or photo on their PushFar account, I tend not to respond to their requests to be their mentor, but this has nothing to do with gender it’s to do with whether an effort to be serious about mentoring has been made. However, even with a photo and a profile, it doesn’t always work out right! Here are some examples:

• One American female wanted me as a mentor and when we had our first meeting, she told me this was because “British males have the best voices and manners”. She turned out to be late for meetings, never showed herself on-screen and slurred her speech. So, I ended it after meeting 3.

• Two African males requested me as a mentor but never showed up for meetings, so I closed our mentoring relationship after 3 attempts to meet.

And yet the good news is that all the other mentoring relationships have been rewarding and useful learning experiences for me and most importantly for them, the mentee - according to their feedback. Regular meetings once a month to keep momentum and currency, where the mentee has thought about and shared the agenda topics in advance, owned the goals and set aside time for their personal development are often the most effective mentoring experiences!

And yes, it’s very satisfying when as a mentor you can contribute to your mentee's progress with building their career, their qualifications, and their confidence. That’s the most rewarding bit!

This article was guest written by Simon Brown. February 2024.

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