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Mentoring international assignees

Finding mentors for those on global mobility schemes can be challenging but worthwhile

The benefits to be realised from effective mentoring have long been appreciated by HR professionals and line managers alike. Anybody who has had somebody in their career who gave them useful advice, opened doors, or just provided honest feedback would confirm this. We all appreciate the reassurance that there is somebody whose opinion we can ask for in certain situations, talk things through with, or who will just listen to what we have to say when we need to make important decisions.

However, in the international context mentoring is a bit more complicated; mainly because of cultural, pairing and logistical challenges. While the benefits to be found are quite promising, the means to achieve them are more difficult. For instance, should the mentor be from the home or from the host country? If a home country mentor, should they have international work experience as well and, if so, in the same country as the expatriate? And how can a successful social interaction between mentor and mentee be ensured when they are not in the same country and maybe not even in the same time zone? These are just a few of the questions companies need to keep in mind when they want to reap the benefits of expatriate mentoring.

We looked into these and other questions in a recent study at The RES Forum. The survey combined the information and opinions of 491 expatriates who are working on international assignments all over the world with the opinions of 33 global mobility managers in international organisations. The latter provided extremely valuable and comprehensive inputs about mentoring schemes and processes in place within their companies, which could then be compared with the demands and expectations of mentees. With such an approach, we can help HR professionals draw conclusions about how best to maximise the benefits of their mentoring programmes for international assignees. We were also able to develop a toolkit for expatriate mentoring.

While working on this project I reflected on my own experiences of mentoring. I have been lucky enough to have had great mentors at different stages of my career – both in the corporate world as well as later when I joined academia. One of the most pressing issues for me was to understand why somebody would be willing to give me support above and beyond their regular duties. I can only guess about my mentors’ motivations, but maybe this was an altruistic process driven by the fact that they had had great mentors of their own. For me at least this is a very good reason why I mentor people. Academics, relying on Social Exchange Theory, call this a complex form of non-reciprocal social exchange.

This gets me back to the core learning in our research. When we think about the benefits of mentoring and designing mentoring programmes, the fundamental prerequisite for success is the willingness of human beings to adapt and live out the role of a mentor. In other words: a truly non-reciprocal social exchange. Therefore, while our study was an insightful starting point, we need to find out much more about why people are – or are not – willing to become mentors. In this regard it is our job to both encourage those who have had mentors to become mentors themselves and, at the same time, try to get people into mentoring roles.

Mentoring is a great and extremely helpful form of social support. However, it is truly human in nature and I am convinced that it can only deliver its full potential when it comes from the heart.

Benjamin Bader is senior lecturer in international human resource management at Newcastle University Business School, and an academic partner and strategic adviser to The RES Forum