Contextual intelligence in mentoring

Two articles in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review (September 2014) provide food for thought about developing talent in a multi-cultural organization. One, by Tarun Khanna, explores the concept of “contextual intelligence”. His studies indicate the

  • Most universal truths about management play out differently in different contexts: best practices don’t necessarily travel
  • Global companies won’t succeed in unfamiliar markets unless they adapt – or even rebuild – their operating models
  • Mental models that are rooted in the HQ culture aren’t obviously single perspective – and lead to simplistic assumptions about how things work in different cultural contexts.

One of the classic examples I encountered of this phenomenon at work was a US-based multinational, which told all of its subsidiaries around the world to implement mentoring programmes, if they had not already done so. Most dutifully reported in a  few months later that they had complied. Then an HR dignitary from HQ visited Europe and was horrified to find that each country had created its own version of mentoring programmes, most of which were very different from the US approach. Instructions were rapidly distributed for everyone to fall in line, despite the act that the European programmes were by and large delivering much better results than the North American. A standardised, inflexible programme was rapidly rolled out. The Europeans reacted either by losing interest (doing just enough to keep HQ off their backs) or resorting to subterfuge to keep doing what they thought was right. More than a decade later, that company struggles to achieve credibility amongst line managers for coaching and mentoring.
In the second article, senior executives from around the world talk about how their companies are trying to develop greater cultural sensitivity. Luc Minguet, of Michelin, points to the differences in how Americans and French people give and receive feedback. Eduardo Caride of Telefonica looks at the practicalities of moving executives between countries and concludes that “the biggest predictor of success is the person’s attitude to learning: Is he or she willing to listen and understand rather than impose personal views?”
All of this has relevance for the design of mentoring programmes. There is often an assumption (supporting by much of the advisory literature) that part of the role of the mentor is to acculturise mentees to the dominant cultural norms and ways of thinking, so that they can learn to work within them. Mentors are also assumed to bring with them a perspective on what constitutes effective leadership and to groom the mentee to align themselves with this perspective. Yet there is ample evidence that different cultures value different qualities in a leader. Moreover, the context of the HQ culture can be very different from that in subsidiaries in other countries. (Khanna points out, for example, that much of the data executives in developed countries take for granted isn’t available in less developed economies.)
In a more modern view of mentoring as a space for co-learning, mentoring someone in a distant land is likely to be much more beneficial for both parties and for the organization, if a core purpose of the relationship is to explore and capitalise upon contextual and cultural differences. The mentee can use this knowledge to become more politically aware and adept at managing his or her career in cultural interface between the local environment and the expectations of the global organization. And the mentor can use their new understanding both to better manage relationships with colleagues and direct reports around the world; and to help the organization centrally developed more sophisticated ways of thinking about policies and practises in culturally and economically diverse contexts.
This latter perspective – mentoring as a vehicle for equipping organizational leaders with greater cultural and contextual sensitivity and insight – is largely unexplored, although we know from anecdote that it happens frequently within individual relationships. Making “contextual agility” a core objective of multi-country or cross-cultural mentoring programmes makes sense as a way to maximise the value of the mentoring intervention, and hence increase the return on investment.

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