When Mentorship Crosses Cultures, Both Sides Learn


Jelena Zikic is an Associate Professor at York University. In her research and practice, she explores a combination of career and life transitions of diverse populations.

Everyone knows that mentoring relationships are one important avenue for professional learning. Young people are taught to seek out senior executives in their organization, function, industry, or geographical location who can help them learn the ropes, share knowledge, teach new skills, broaden their network and, in some cases, fast track their careers. Less talked about, but just as important, are the benefits and learning that mentors can derive from mentees.

The best of these relationships are, in fact, a mutual exchange. In my work studying cross-cultural mentor-mentee dyads in Canada—local executives who’d been paired with immigrant job-seekers—I found much give-and-take between partners. Though they were supposed to be the “gurus” in these pairings, the mentors said they, too, derived personal growth and development in multiple domains.

The first was in their awareness of and appreciation for diversity. After hearing mentees describe their experiences trying to navigate a new labor market, the mentors in my study reported feeling greater respect for newcomers and the value of inclusion. As one participant told me, “My role was to explain what life in Canadian business is like, and how to adjust. But that’s kind of unfair. We’re not asking Canadian business to adjust to immigrants. So I had a newfound respect for Paul and people in his situation.” Another commented, “I just wanted to go up to my VP and say, “I found a gem here. This person is so creative and knowledgeable, I think we could really benefit from their expertise.” A third emphasized the value of the back-and-forth exchange: “Her sharing of articles, thoughts, and feelings [led us to] great dialogues and conversation.”

Mentors said that their time with protégés also provided them with an opportunity for much-needed self-reflection. One executive explained, “Sometimes you’re so caught up in business and work, that you forget to balance. Ella was my balance. I had the capacity to be myself, here and now, find my calm, relax and still keep her engaged in her pursuit of something.” These busy executives said that they appreciated a chance to get away from the grind of daily work routines; after focusing on someone else’s challenges, they had new perspective on their own. Mentoring “gave me a space to actually find out where my calm was,” one participant reported. “I could relax with Lina, but still keep her engaged in her pursuit of something. I grew from it.”

Skill-building and increased self-esteem were two more common benefits cited by mentors. Some said they’d learned to become better coaches, while others described feeling newly confident and inspired to step up their own networking efforts. “I spent a lot of time being a sounding board,” one mentor told me, which “taught me how to recognize and build on my listening skills.” Another commented, “I was able to give Stacey advice and connect her with other individuals inside my organization, [and] she [helped me to] understand that I do have something to offer.”

It’s clear that mentoring can be just as inspiring, rewarding, and educational as being mentored.

This article appeared in Harvard Business Review

 

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