Best Practices in Cross Cultural Mentoring

By Phyllis Barajas

What we understood about talent in the work place, how we identify “­high potentials”–those designated as the heir apparent– are changing as the pipeline of talent is shifting from majority to minority/women.    The 2010 Census confirms that more metro areas than ever are becoming minority majority cities.  Boston continues to be a majority minority city and growing with 53% of the population non-white or Hispanic and 47% white non-Hispanic.

As more professionals of color and women enter the workforce and move up to middle management our assumptions about how our companies and organizations identify, select and mentor will need to be reassessed and new approaches adopted. Greater attention must be paid to how these matches are made and the individuals prepared for a mentor relationship. Traditional mentor/mentee matches have been majority / majority.  Implicit in this dynamic is the assumption that they have more in common, (i.e.  shared values, way of looking at things, and approaches to the work effort).

Mentoring with Fixed Assumptions. We look at the world through our own set of perceptual lens that color how we see things and what we believe to be true.  For many majority culture mentors their own experience with diverse professionals has been limited. One mentor recently noted that he had never met or interacted with “a person of color until I left the state I grew up in to go to college” and he went on “my career in the financial industry has not afforded me many opportunities to meet and get to know very many diverse professionals”.

Win-Win Mentoring Dynamic.  How then will this experience or lack thereof add to or inhibit the ability of a mentor and mentee to establish rapport or trust? Both are necessary if they are to explore the mentee’s potential.  The door this question opens up can lead to a positive experience in which TWO WAY mentoring occurs.  Mentees get a first-hand view at the mentor’s experience, skills, advice and professional networks while the mentor learns about the mentee’s mindset, environment and perspectives.  When pairs are from different cultures, mutual learning is amplified as they both need to become aware of each other’s dominant culture and incorporate it in the mentoring experience.

In the end, a two-way mentoring approach, grounded in a cross-cultural experience,  provides a more relevant leadership development strategy that will effectively address the needs of a rapidly changing talent pool.


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