Managing multi-country mentoring programmes

From ‘Everyone Needs A Mentor’ by Prof David Clutterbuck

Managing multi-country mentoring programmes

Multi-country and global mentoring programmes are becoming increasingly common in international organizations. Multi-country programmes are typically ones, where each country or region is encouraged to have a mentoring programme (or several), with participants all being local. Central HR may exert more or less control over who these programmes are aimed at and how they are facilitated. Cross-border mentoring promotes more diverse mentoring conversations by linking people between national operations. And, of course, there are examples of hybrids between these two approaches.

Both kinds of programme have challenges, as indicated in the table below, but before we explore these, let’s clarify why so many multinational organizations want to use mentoring in this way, rather than leave each region or country to develop its own approaches entirely. Some of the most common reasons given are:

  • Achieving a greater level of consistency in the quality and application of mentoring programmes across their international operations. I have found very few cases, where this consistency was desired for its own sake. Rather, it is driven by factors such as general initiatives to raise the quality of HR, or by a wider programme of cultural change, in which the skills of coaching and mentoring are seen to be a key enabler.
  • Developing a common language and set of expectations about mentoring among participants, HR and line managers throughout the organization. One of the biggest barriers to rolling out mentoring is often a matter of different perspectives on what mentoring is and which model of mentoring the organization espouses.
  • Value for money – having a centralised resource is arguably much cheaper than developing lots of divergent local ones
  • Transfer of good practice from one location to another
  • Stimulating higher levels of international relocation amongst employees
  • Helping expatriates learn to work within the local culture
  • Supporting indigenization strategies (for example, using expatriates to mentor local managers into leadership roles).

Creating a global mentoring strategy

Some organizations have created stand-alone global mentoring strategies, but it’s more common to position them within either a wider strategy to create a coaching and mentoring culture or a talent development (or broader employee development) strategy. As with any strategic planning process, the key questions here are:

  • What are the key people issues the business needs to address?
  • How specifically can mentoring assist with these?
  • What applications of mentoring do we therefore want to encourage?
  • How important is it to have a consistent, joined-up approach to managing these applications?
  • What do we want to control centrally and locally, in terms of programme administration and design; and why?
  • What do we want to support centrally and locally; and why?
  • What are our key performance indicators for mentoring?

Table 1: Issues in multi-country mentoring programmes

IssuesMultiple local programmesCross-border mentoring
MatchingIs there a large enough pool of mentors?How can we ensure that the distant relationship gels?
CultureDifferences between cultural assumptions of the multinational’s home country and those of the host countryIs there a need for cultural awareness training?
Power issuesCan be a big issue, if mentor and mentee work in the same location Email communication tends to produce greater psychological safety
Initial trainingEmphasis on face to face?
How can we ensure consistency of message and quality of training?
Emphasis on webinars
How can we ensure participants have enough practice to be competent/confident?
Support and review sessionsMore opportunity for face to face check-insCheck-ins normally remote
Support platforms How much should they be locally adapted?
How do we promote their use?
How do we make them relevant to all participants and stakeholders?
How do we promote their use?
MeasurementAdapting measures to the needs of the local organization and environmentEnsuring the language of evaluation questions is consistently understood

Adapting a global approach to local needs

Many multinational mentoring programmes have failed because of perceived “cultural imperialism” on the part of the international headquarters. A US corporation, for example, encouraged subsidiaries around the world to set up mentoring programmes and some countries complied enthusiastically, applying models derived from within their own culture and traditions. When the company realised the diversity of approach, it tried to impose a US-centric common definition and set of processes. This killed off most of the existing programmes.

Good practice appears to involve:

  • Designing the programme(s) or the corporate approach to mentoring with input from a wide range of sources, and particularly from local HR and line managers
  • Recognising that in countries that speaking the same language, the context of mentoring may be very different. (Trying to impose a US approach on the UK and Eire, or vice versa, is likely to meet resistance.)
  • Openly acknowledging the impact of culture on the style of mentoring and including relevant cultural awareness elements in any training and supporting information resources
  • Designing training content and support materials with a core of common elements (definitions, skills, emphasis on learning dialogue and so on) and a more flexible approach to case studies, role plays/ real plays, links with local mythology and social mores
  • Educating local HR professionals, so that they can become champions for mentoring and identify opportunities to support regional/ international programmes and to launch local programmes, aimed at specific, local issues
  • Clarifying other important contextual factors. For example, the qualities associated with effective leadership are not universal – there are significant differences between cultures, which may need to be taken into account
  • Wherever possible, rooting the mentoring “story” in the mythology or religious beliefs of the country. Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and other religions all exemplify learning dialogue, as do many of the stories told to children in East Africa, and in Asia-Pacific cultures.

Some specific cultural issues

Several issues may be of concern. One relates to how people learn. In many cultures, the expectation of a learning relationship is one where the student listens to the teacher and absorbs information – learning by rote. Mentors and mentees need to develop a style of working together that gradually enables the mentee to challenge what the mentor says, and to bring their own thinking and ideas to the learning conversation.

The second relates to how people relate to authority (what culture researcher Gert Hofstede calls power-distance). How people from different cultures react to colleagues with greater or lesser authority differs substantially. So upward mentoring is going to be more difficult in a Chinese or Malay culture, for example, than in a Scandinavian one.

A third issue concerns loss of face. Mentors in some cultures may find it difficult to share their mistakes at all, let alone with someone more junior.  Yet those mistakes are an important source of co-learning. Giving feedback ranges from an almost obligatory behaviour in some cultures to anathema in others!

Sometimes difficult to understand, the fourth issue relates to how people connect to the world around them. Americans and to some extent Europeans tend to focus on the particular – for example, what specifically happened? what are you doing? Chinese people tend to see events from a wider perspective (quite literally the bigger picture) where what is happening for the individual is part of what is happening around them. This difference in perspective can lead the mentoring conversation into a tangle of cross-purposes. It’s important to take this into account both in the design of the programme (how it will be presented to stakeholders) and in training participants.

Closely related, in impact at least, are the issues of family, masculinity/ femininity and collectivism / individualism.  In some cultures, the primary source of “natural” mentoring is the family. It’s not unusual for a Western mentor to be giving guidance that contradicts that the mentee is receiving from elders in his or her family.  Mentor and mentee need to learn the skills of acknowledging and integrating these conversations.

Hofstede’s individual/ collective dimension of culture is relevant because people from individualist cultures are more likely to emphasise individual performance and achievement when setting relationship goals; while people from collectivist cultures tend to be more conscious of group success and well-being.

The masculine/feminine dimension explores emotional and social roles through the lens of gender.  Cultures with a feminine orientation, such as in some Northern European countries, emphasise relationships, environment, co-operation and benevolence. Masculine cultures emphasise competition, achievement and achievement.  This difference can lead mentor and mentee to bring quite different sets of values and assumptions to the mentoring dialogue.

Another of Hofstede’s dimensions relates to uncertainty-avoidance. Cultures differ considerably in their ability to cope with ambiguity and risk. There is a stronger need in risk-avoidant cultures to emphasise rules and put greater reliance on stereotypes. It’s inevitable that some mentoring relationships involving people with widely differing levels of uncertainty avoidance will encounter tensions, if the mentor takes the mentee too far out of their comfort zone.

Of course, these cultural issues are very broad-brush pictures. Individual relationships are rarely so clear-cut or typical! [1]

The implications for mentoring programme managers are two-fold. Firstly, training and subsequent support for participants need to take all these issues into account. Secondly, the design of programmes should also be flexible enough to accommodate some measure of acknowledgement of the validity of each of these cultural perspectives, along with guidelines on how work within them. Some programmes deliberately match people from very different cultural backgrounds with the aim of expanding their awareness and appreciation of other cultures and ways of viewing the world. Where this works well, it is usually the case that this learning is a central part of the mentoring contract.


Multi-country and international mentoring programmes require a great deal of forethought and appreciation of local and regional cultures and circumstances. It is possible to design a corporate policy and / or individual mentoring programmes centrally and ship them around the world – but engaging with cultural diversity and difference in circumstance internationally is likely to produce much better results!


[1] Recommended further reading around these issues includes: Hofstede (2001 and 2010), Trompenaars  and Hampden-Turner (1997) Rosinski (???) and Plaister-Ten (2009).