Mentoring Across Borders — Cultural Diversity in Mentoring

Originally posted on the IBM Jobs blog.

 By Jennifer Pelham

In my previous article, I wrote about how mentors should take it upon themselves to create a trusting environment by being authentic. One way to do this is to be sensitive to cultural diversity. Regardless if you are mentoring someone from another country or someone from your own hometown, we all have differences and similarities. We can learn a lot if we open ourselves up and really get to know each other. Vulnerability is where the true magic of mentoring happens.


I once heard a US-based IBM executive talk about his mentoring relationship with an IBMer in Brazil. He spoke about how he learned just as much from his mentee as his mentee hopefully learned from him. Fully aware of the opportunity to learn about another culture, he shared how he expected his mentee to come prepared for their meetings with something to teach about life and work in Brazil.

This is just one example to illustrate the many instances of mentoring across borders at IBM. We have the unique ability to work with people all over the world. In fact, one of my previous projects at IBM was implementing a language mentoring program available to those going on global assignment. Then, seeing the interest, we used our internal communities to help mentees and mentors connect with each other. Hundreds of people joined the community in search of a language mentoring relationship.

Language is only one component of cultural diversity. Learning about cultural norms is another important aspect. IBMers have access to tools like TMA World Country Navigator to help with this process. It’s important that we take into account the differences between our cultures so we have better understanding and insight in our mentoring relationships.

I heard a great story about this vital understanding – especially when it comes to food and language: A man from the midwest area of the United States was on a business trip in Japan. His hosts brought him to a fancy sushi restaurant. The man didn’t like sushi, so he asked the server for some chicken. The chicken was served raw. You can easily see how this simple misinterpretation could have been avoided with knowledge and communication. The American man should have familiarized himself with Japanese culture before his trip.

With that in mind, here are my tips for mentoring across borders:

  1. Do your homework. Nowadays, it’s easy to do a quick internet search. Formalize yourself with some facts. And look at a map if you need to refresh your geography.
  2. Don’t assume, ask the questions. Don’t make the same mistake as the man in my story by assuming they will serve you cooked chicken at all restaurants around the world. In other words, be sensitive to potential differences and ask the right questions. Be careful of generalities and prejudice.
  3. Try new things. Expose yourself to different kinds of cultures and food. My family recently attended a Chinese New Year celebration at a local museum. A few months ago one of our friends from Chile told us about an authentic Chilean restaurant, so we dined there shortly after.

It is written on IBM’s Diversity & Inclusion brochure that, “Every IBMer is considered a Global IBMer. That means each employee must be able to seamlessly collaborate and enable the business to share resources across borders and business units. Leading and working in multicultural teams to solve complex client problems has become the norm as IBMers do business around the world.”

Collaborating and sharing resources is the heart of mentoring. It’s up to each of us to learn from each other because we are stronger together.

Have you been involved in a cross-cultural mentoring relationship? Drop a comment below to let us know other tips you have found useful in your mentor-mentee sessions.

Jennifer has her Masters in Social Welfare and is a Social Communications & Engagement Strategist with IBM Global Technology Services. Prior to her current role, Jennifer spent over five years in IBM Talent working on career development, mentoring and social learning where, among other things, she built and consulted on various mentoring projects around IBM.