Mentoring across cultures.

For the past several years I have served as a volunteer mentor for startup CEO’s through the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. All of my mentees have been social entrepreneurs from Africa, India, and Asia who are working on social ventures that can have an impact on economic and environmental problems facing the developing world in the 21st century.

I always want to make sure I’m being helpful to my mentee CEO’s, and not simply pontificating or imposing upon them implicit biases from my own years of operating companies in Silicon Valley. Clearly what works here is different from what works in Kampala or Accra.

In trying to make sure I’m a helpful mentor to people from different cultures, I also often think about the research done by Geert Hofstede, the famous business sociologist, on what he calls the Power Distance Index (PDI) across different cultures. Hofstede’s index is a way of looking at the degree to which people of lower socioeconomic classes accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. Stated simply in the context of a corporate organization, this means that employees from cultures with a high PDI tend to “shut up and do what they’re told”, whereas employees from cultures with a low PDI tend to feel that their opinion is just as legitimate as their boss’s opinion (and they feel comfortable saying so!).

Examples of countries with low PDI are the Netherlands, United Kingdom, the United States, and the Nordic countries. India, Malaysia, and the Arab World, on the other hand, can be regarded as examples of countries or regions with high PDI cultures.

The reason that this concept has been helpful to me in mentoring startup CEO’s from different cultures is that my whole career has been in Silicon Valley, where “pushback” is an expected and valued thing from a team. If I hold a meeting to outline next quarter’s strategy, I expect my team to tell me where they disagree. But that’s not true everywhere in the world.

So when I’m mentoring someone from another culture, I want to make it clear to them that I’m just tossing out ideas, hoping they’re helpful. I don’t want them to think of me as the grey-haired senior executive whom they should not question (although I am old and grey-haired, that part is true). I want them to challenge me — they know their business a whole lot better than I do. My job as a mentor is just to ask helpful questions, listen carefully, and suggest things that they might think about.

Cross-cultural management and mentoring can be difficult. But a good place to start is with the understanding that we all come from different places with different cultural expectations — including the degree to which one should “push back” on a senior manager’s ideas.

I’m a Silicon Valley guy. I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford, coach startup CEO’s at Miller Center, and run the 4thly Startup Accelerator. Also, I love tacos.

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