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Case Studies: Cross-Cultural Mentoring

Even the most progressive companies often show gaps in talent development, especially when it comes to women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians. Both independent research and DiversityInc’s own research show that formal mentoring programs with cross-cultural emphasis are the keys to creating a sustainable level of talent ready to move up to the highest levels of an organization.

Corporate Case Study No. 1: IBM

At 26, Inhi Cho Suh was a rising star at IBM, the youngest person on her team and the manager as well. Fortunately for her—and for IBM—a mentor showed her how to respectfully supervise older people and how to flourish in a demanding corporate culture.

Today, at 34, Suh has 100 direct reports and another 100 people globally for whom she is responsible. She is vice president of information management product strategy in the IBM Software Group.

Last year, she met Tami Cannizzaro, who had been working in IBM’s finance department but was switching to marketing. She admired Cannizzaro’s high energy and positive attitude but felt Cannizzaro could benefit from some guidance on how to become a manager.

“I saw she needed a transition from being a strong individual performer to being a team leader,” Suh recalls.

What’s interesting about this mentoring relationship is that Cannizzaro is actually six years older than Suh and their backgrounds are quite different. Cannizzaro, who is white, knew Suh, who is Asian, because they had worked on a few projects together. Based in New York, Cannizzaro is now the director of IBM Marketing’s Smart Work Technology.

IBM has a strong culture of mentoring, especially for women.

“I asked Inhi if she would be my mentor. I was very impressed with her and how she handles herself in meetings—her demeanor and her business acumen,” Cannizzaro says.

Suh recalls Cannizzaro seeking her out when Cannizzaro was returning from maternity leave and wanted to know how to position herself to become a manager. She gave her an exercise asking others for feedback on how they perceive her and she started a word game with her on how she brands herself. Suh gave her mentee a list of 10 famous people and told her to name the first three adjectives that came to mind about those people.

“I wanted her to understand that we have impressions of people, even those we don’t know, and your name carries your reputation. It’s the same thing in business and you have to find your brand,” Suh says.

Since Suh works out of North Carolina and Cannizzaro is based in New York, they only meet a few times a year.

Sheila Forte, who manages the worldwide mentoring program for IBM, says this is common. The corporation has three types of mentoring: expert mentoring, in which a specific discipline or technological knowledge is transferred; socialization mentoring for new hires; and long-term career guidance and coaching, which is what this relationship is all about.

IBM employees report an 85 percent to 95 percent satisfaction with the mentoring program, and the company evaluates relationships midway through the program as well as when it’s completed.

Forte, who is Black, has mentored many people in her years at IBM, including several cross-cultural relationships. She recalls a Latina mentee, new to IBM and right out of college, who had very good technical skills but “did not have the personal characteristics and attributes to be successful. She was very abrasive.”

Forte sat down with her and said: “Do you realize how you are coming off to others and how damaging to your career this could be?” The young woman was very open to constructive criticism and worked with Forte to change her behavior. She later sent a note to Forte thanking her and saying: “Now I feel comfortable with IBM and know that I can succeed.”

Forte also recalls her first mentor at IBM, a white man, who “saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. He told me I needed to do a personal assessment and see what my strengths are—and act on those strengths—such as being a team player, having strong negotiation skills, being strategic and being open to other points of view.” She says he taught her that “there’s a delicate balance between confidence and arrogance.”

Corporate Case Study No. 2: Sodexo

Ronni Schorr joined Sodexo three years ago and experienced a culture shock. Schorr had more than 25 years’ experience as an entrepreneur and had founded a company called e-Touch International, which helped consumers order and pay for food with nutritional analysis via their desktop or kiosk. When her company was acquired, she stayed on with the acquired company for a year and then joined Sodexo as the vice president of brand management in corporate services.

“I was new to a company this size and I didn’t understand how to navigate the system. I needed to understand the rest of the organization—our value proposition,” she recalls.

Enter her mentor, James Taylor, president of the senior-services division. Taylor, who joined the company nine years ago, has held major operations roles. He started his career as a dishwasher and has had the discipline and drive to work his way up. He’s been recognized by Black organizations and national organizations for his leadership.

Sodexo’s IMPACT mentoring program, which is cross-cultural and cross-divisional, put Taylor and Schorr together. The selection process is very secretive, but Taylor, as a senior person, had a say in it and sought Schorr out after observing her. Sodexo has had 125 partnerships in IMPACT since it was started in 2004. The cross-cultural lens is key. Pairs make a one-year commitment and are assessed on their progress.

“As I live out my leadership role in Sodexo, I want to bring the best and brightest to the company,” he says. “I’ve always been excited about how we let people live their dream within Sodexo. We offer people a different lens to look through as they think about how they view work.”

They got together in March as part of the initial pairing and found they shared family values and a strong desire to help others. “What gets both of us excited is helping people, working with clients, customers and coworkers,” says Taylor.

Schorr recalls that early on Taylor had her write down everyone she knew in the organization and prioritize how well she knew them—who knew her name, who would greet her in the hallway. “It gave me a really good map of where the voids are in the organization and how I could get myself known,” she says.

She adds that “our values are the same. The cross-cultural perspective of getting to know each other as individuals reinforced that.”

Schorr recalls Taylor telling her to think about the president’s committee, which had all white men on it. He told her to “think about talking to them. How do you convince them from an operational and emotional standing that they need to buy into this?”

Taylor says he learned a lot from Schorr’s entrepreneurial style and adds that he intends to continue the relationship when it formally ends in March. As for Schorr, she’s signed up again for IMPACT—this time as a mentor.

Case Study No. 3: Target

Tia Whitlock had a stereotype in mind of what a typical buttoned-down white woman in finance would be like. To her surprise, Cathy Wright was nothing like what she had imagined.

“Cathy’s very authentic, real, direct and open,” says Whitlock, an HR manager for Target who is Black. “Immediately, there was a trust factor. She was willing to talk about whatever needed to be discussed.”

Whitlock was new to the company when they were paired together last year as part of a mentoring pilot program called Connections, which featured a cross-cultural component and was applicable to manager levels and above. The cross-functionality also was appealing to Whitlock, who had no experience with finance and was eager to learn more about different aspects of the company.

She needed help understanding how to present to people at the executive level. “Cathy is at a level [on which] I aspire to be. I needed to know if I keep my presentations at a high level or go into detail. I need to know if I experience things because of my gender or race,” Whitlock says.

She used Whitlock to assess her career development and run scenarios past her. “One time in a meeting, I got feedback that my communication style was very direct, that I say what’s on my mind. Black women get the stereotype—fair or not—that we’re aggressive. I wanted to make sure that wasn’t what was going on here,” Whitlock recalls.

Wright, who now mentors eight people at a time, said she had received similar feedback early in her career, when she was in industrial relations. “I gave her tactical suggestions—read your audience,” she says.

Their one-year formal mentoring relationship ended in August but they have kept in touch. Both are based at Target’s Minneapolis headquarters.

What did they each say was their major takeaway?

“I appreciate the authentic relationship that has evolved and my mentor’s availability to be that valuable sounding board, adding perspective and helping me to think outside the box,” says Whitlock.

“I have learned a great deal from the frank conversations and insights and appreciate her genuine respect for my perspective and experience,” adds Wright.

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