Lessons on mentoring from women across Asia

Written by Sterling Content
April 24, 2020


Written by Sterling Content
April 24, 2020

Women leaders in British chambers of commerce in Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore and Japan shared their expertise on mentoring on April 17 in the first multination British chamber webinar.

Some 80 members from across the region joined the event, which covered tips for mentors and mentees along every step of the mentorship process, from pairing and development of a mutually beneficial relationship to evaluation and feedback.


Leadership in a crisis

Taipei-based Revital Shpangental, founder of business consultancy Anemon Ventures Ltd, began the session by calling on leaders to prioritize the physical, mental and financial health of staff during the COVID-19 crisis. Initiating a system of regular, transparent communication and being more flexible and compassionate to employees’ circumstances are key steps to do this, she said.

Leaders can then address business concerns—both immediate and longer-term—while considering the community that their organisation impacts.

“Take actions that matter. Actions take us to the road of recovery,” she said, adding that even small milestones along the road should be shared and celebrated.

Acknowledging mistakes and showing learnings is also vital, as is considering what needs to be done now for organisations to be better prepared for future crises.

She called on leaders to “earn” their leadership and lead by example. “What we do is much more important than what we say,” she added.

Kirsten O’Connor, founder and director of educational services provider Quest Tokyo—a BCCJ Entrepreneur Member—shared her experience as acting head of primary at The British School in Tokyo during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

She noted that, although the crisis was immediate rather than slow burning, the leadership approach was similar. Actions she found essential were communicating, keeping the community together and giving clear instructions with authenticity, honesty and a smile, even when she felt nervous or uncertain.

Agatha Lee, general manager China for Cathay Pacific Airways, pointed out that in an immediate crisis, not all those who need information may ask for it. She called on leaders to map out all stakeholders to ensure comprehensive communication during a crisis.


Mentorship chemistry

Most important in approaching mentorship, said O’Connor, is the match of mentor and mentee. The pair should be open and honest before committing to take part, ensuring they share core values and a vision for their mutual personal development.

Singapore-based Helen McGuire, co-founder and managing director of networking website Hopscotch, agreed that commonalty is critical.

“Chemistry is super important. You shouldn’t start a journey if you can’t agree on the goals. Do your background and research [on the person],” she said.

McGuire added that a speed-dating style approach allows both parties to consider their compatibility. “You won’t know immediately if the person is the best person, but you might get a sense if they are not the person,” she said of the approach, adding that participants can follow up later, to chat and complete value trees.

Mentors should expect to bring real-life experience to mentees and be realistic on what can be done during the time they can commit, said O’Connor. Conversely, mentees should be realistic on the time it might take to change their behaviour; O’Connor referred to research by Durham University that suggests a minimum of 30 hours’ training is required to instigate change in someone’s teaching practices, for example.

Ideally, mentoring should empower mentees while also nourishing the career of mentors thanks to new insights. “Mentors should enable mentees to bring passion and harness it with them, while mentees can show how the world is seen differently, allowing new views of the future to be incorporated into companies,” she said.


Giving feedback

Cathay Pacific’s Lee advised mentors to give regular feedback in a quiet place with phones turned off. Rather than focusing on sharing their stories, mentors should let mentees drive the conversation.

“Always ensure a two-way dialogue. Listening is as important as speaking,” she said. “Positive reinforcement will energise the conversation. Feedback should be specific and actionable.”

Lee warned against being too direct with feedback, particularly in Asia, where indirectness can be more typical. “Pauses and silence allow both people to reflect, meaning a more meaningful relationship in the log-run,” she added.


Outcomes and expectations

As mentors and mentees choose mentorship for various reasons, often throughout their careers, outcomes are connected to their expectations, explained Rose Hawes, partner at risk consultancy Control Risks Group. She shared her experience of mentorship walks, where mentors and mentees walked and talked in groups, successfully tackling issues together.

Hawes said attendees should consider what they can gain from mentorship now. A mentor might provide an external perspective on an immediate issue, thereby boosting confidence in judgement, or support long-term personal development.

Mentees should choose mentors based on their immediate needs, said Lee. A recent graduate, for example, might benefit from choosing someone who recently experienced their current challenges rather than someone 30 years older than them.

Hawes added: “Don’t choose a mentor based on seniority. Think of the time the person will have and how they can help you.”

Furthermore, some mid-career professionals may act as a mentor and mentee at the same time, to gain insight from a more experienced individual while supporting someone early in their career.


Accessing mentorship during the current crisis

Though COVID-19 has brought uncertainty, Hopscotch’s McGuire said now is opportune to take part in mentorship because people have more time and are more open to helping each other.

“Meeting remotely is just as good as meeting in person. Don’t think you can’t do it because you’re not in the same city,” she said. “Ask the question; don’t be shy.”

To find a mentor, she suggested considering friends or colleagues who are known and trusted. People you work with directly, however, should be avoided. Once this pool is exhausted, contacting the connections of these people, via LinkedIn for example, should be the next step. Organisations such as chambers of commerce and lean-in groups are also a good source.

McGuire noted that a mentor with a different network to the mentee has great benefits for making new connections.


Value of diversity

Anemon Ventures’ Shpangental closed the session by reminding attendees that a mentor or mentee with a different background, sector and area of expertise is hugely valuable for both parties.

“Diversity helps us to get different angles on problems we are dealing with, [to act] in a more effective way,” she said. It gives us fresh ideas and insights.”