Connected by video despite COVID-19

by Andreas Ernst

Andreas Ernst, Scripture Engagement and Media Consultant, SIL Cameroon

When it comes to training, I find nothing more rewarding than working on a hands-on project, so that my mentees or students and I can learn something concrete together, enjoy the process, and find motivation to keep going. However, whether we like it or not, the spread of a virus, the lack of funding or an increasing need to mentor others across geographical boundaries may lead us to look for alternative ways of keeping up our training and mentoring efforts. 

One of the ways I have found online mentoring most rewarding is by regularly connecting online with former students to discuss the joys and challenges they face in implementing what they have learned and to set new goals. To my great surprise, I have found this more rewarding than I expected. I have found that simply putting in the effort to ask questions, to listen well, to learn from my students’ experiences and to acknowledge the difficulties they encounter, even when the internet connection is bad, establishes a real sense of shared vision and responsibility. Another benefit I have observed is that such follow-up mentoring helps me see what aspects of training my students struggle with most, and what elements or tools are most useful for them in their contexts. 

If you are like me, you may find mentoring folks online on things like using software or learning to complete step-by-step procedures challenging. However, perhaps you could consider making short video tutorials for your mentees? Recently I started making video tutorials for my students who are working on creating educational radio dramas. As I share these video tutorials via WhatsApp groups, I also send them short exercises that are in line with the tutorials and offer rewards for progress or particular achievements. Only time will tell how effective this new approach is. But I already see promising signs. I found out from one of my mentees that the Ministry of Health in his country had asked for permission to use the educational radio drama we had made together on a health-related subject and to broadcast it across the whole country. What a tremendous encouragement this was on a day I was feeling low! 

Whatever particular skills you have been passing on to others, I want to encourage us all to also invest in online mentoring. True, online mentoring cannot fully replace face-to-face interaction for skills that require demonstrating procedures hands-on. However, I believe that online mentoring as a follow-up to face-to-face training is highly effective because:

  • Online mentoring is very cost-effective and allows ongoing and regular follow-up.
  • Online mentoring can be just as inspiring for all parties involved as face-to-face mentoring. In fact, online mentoring may be even more motivating because it allows you to shift the focus away from being an instructor towards learning from each other.
  • Online mentoring adds a powerful personal and vision-sharing dimension to capacity building, which is vital for developing our future leaders and passing on the baton. This is important to remember, as some of our mentees work in situations where they lack the kind of leadership and support they need so much to serve the Lord with their full potential.
  • Online mentoring helps you develop other trainers. The regular assignments and evaluation help to develop critical thinking and self-motivation skills in your mentees, which in turn helps you identify folks who could become your future training assistants.
  • Online mentoring helps you collect testimonies of how your training is making a difference on the field. These are not only motivating, but also useful for partnership development and funding proposals.
  • Mentoring helps you improve the content and methodology of your training. For example, following up with my radio students via Whatsapp has made me realize that two of the major barriers they face to implementing what they have learned are a) the lack of equipment in their own studios and  b) the lack of support from their leadership. As a result, I have started to include the directors of radio stations in evaluating the implementation assignments of my students, as well as providing opportunities for them to purchase training-specific equipment.

What is your experience with online mentoring? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Discussing expectations right from the start

by Sarah Daubert

Sarah Daubert, Linguist, SIL Cameroon

I received a testimony from someone about a mentoring experience that didn’t go as expected.

“I was mentoring two people who attended a Learning that Lasts workshop. For the next course that we co-taught, I thought I would give them the opportunity to apply what they’d learned. A month before the course, we met for two days and decided on course objectives, modules to include, and who would facilitate which sessions. Each person was responsible to develop or revise the content and activities for their topics.

We did not meet together again to go over the entire curriculum before the course started, from lack of means and time. The results were… uneven, although the course evaluations were all very positive. The more experienced person had indeed developed culturally appropriate content, but the organization of the modules on paper didn’t fit his oral presentation of them. The less experienced person hadn’t had any new topics to develop, but he hadn’t reworked any of the learning activities either, he’d just taken what had been done in the past. Because of my expectations, I was very disappointed. During our staff debrief afterwards, the senior of the two told me that their expectation was that I, as course head, would fully develop the materials and all they would have to do is teach.”

Initial questions for reflection:

  • Have you had an experience similar to this one?
  • How did you navigate it?
  • How would you describe the disconnect between the mentor’s perception of the situation and the two mentees’ understanding of it?
  • What might be the cultural values coming into conflict here?
  • How would you advise the three moving forward?

Anyone who works in a multicultural setting has experienced misunderstandings rooted in unspoken cultural differences. Two people can speak the same language and use the same terms and have very different assumptions about what is meant and what they are expected to do. Researchers such as Sunny Hong, whose paper Cross-Cultural Mentoring is linked on this website (and available in French) point out that mentoring relationships can be complicated or hindered by cross-cultural issues. Hong says:

“to have successful cross-cultural mentoring relationship, cultural differences behind mentoring issues need to be understood.”

The above scenario is an example of what can happen when the mentor and mentee(s) are unaware of the deep differences between what they expect from each other.

Hong draws out the distinctions between mentorship in more individualistic cultures and in more collectivistic cultures.  Broadly speaking, one of the issues that seems to be involved in this situation is the clash between the more egalitarian approach of an individualistic culture, where it is assumed that everyone is at the same “level” and has the same amount of authority to make decisions, and the more hierarchical approach of a collectivist culture, where hierarchy and authority are very important and people defer to the person with the most experience. I have experienced this kind of clash in Cameroon. My teacher friends often have to teach new habits to the students that come to them from national schools, because they have been taught to copy verbatim from their textbooks or the internet. In Europe and the US, plagiarism is a serious offense and we emphasize students’ ability to think for themselves and evaluate what they read so they can decide whether or not they agree. But to paraphrase what one of my friends’ students told her:

“We were taught to copy what the author says because the author is the expert. How can I disagree or evaluate what an expert is telling me?”

This mentality of deferring to the person with the most authority was reflected in the debrief that was described above. The two mentees understood that their role was primarily to do what their mentor, the expert, told them to. Perhaps they thought, like my friends’ student, that it would be presumptuous to try to improve what the course head had decided. Meanwhile, the course head believed that her mentees understood that they were expected to innovate and improve what she had done.

Clear discussion is going to be key to the success of a mentorship relationship between these three. First, I think that the mentor should carefully explore how to keep the communication lines open between her and her mentees. They may perceive a high power distance between them that prevents them from asking all the questions they have. As Eszter pointed out in an earlier post,

“In many of these cultures that operate with high power distance, asking questions from one’s supervisor is not a straight-forward matter.”

On the topic of supervision, I think that the mentor in this situation should make it clear whether she is supervising or mentoring these two co-workers and clearly express to them how those two roles are different. It will probably not work for her to be both supervisor and mentor at the same time.

Lastly, this scenario describes an informal mentoring situation, restricted to one activity. However, there seems to be the potential for co-leading courses in the future and the mentor desires to see her colleagues grow into their roles as co-teachers. Given the situation, it is probably necessary to determine if one or both of the mentees is a good candidate for more formal, long-term mentoring. As Katherine points out in her post about formal and informal mentoring, one of the advantages of formal mentoring would be

“Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it, you make sure things happen.”

There probably isn’t a perfect solution in this scenario. It sounds like there are time and travel constraints involved that make some of the principles of good mentorship difficult to achieve. But even if a more formal mentoring relationship isn’t feasible for these colleagues right now, they could benefit from taking the time to discuss expectations and concrete goals, as well as addressing their unspoken assumptions about how those goals are to be achieved.

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Advantages and disadvantages of formal mentoring

by Katherine O’Donnell

Katherine O’Donnell, Scripture Engagement Consultant, SIL Tanzania

I recently completed the StrengthsFinder from Gallup and one of my strengths turned out to be ‘Developer’. This came as no surprise to people who know me well, who know what a buzz I get from teaching and seeing people grow. As the Coordinator of the Literacy & Scripture Engagement Department in Mbeya, Tanzania, you probably won’t be surprised to also hear that I have been informally mentoring my Tanzanian colleagues over the years, without even realising that what I was doing could be called ‘mentoring’. But now we have heard about ‘formal’ mentoring and the question is, how is this different from what I was doing before, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this formal mentoring?

Firstly, how is it different? I see a key difference as being the final goal. As I informally mentored my colleagues, my goal was simply to see them grow and develop in their job and in their relationship with God and I harboured hopes of them taking on more leadership responsibilities. Good goals, but they were mostly goals in my own head. Formal mentoring, on the other hand, involves the mentor and mentee agreeing on goals and time-frames and working towards specific growth in professional capacity (e.g. to becoming a specialist or consultant or leader), for the benefit of the organisation. Competency Based Certification (or the older Consultant Growth Plans) may help guide the mentor and mentee in setting the goals and making sure that the necessary competencies are ticked off for growth. 

I have now entered into a formal mentoring relationship with one of my colleagues, who we specifically want to see becoming a Scripture Engagement specialist and Department Coordinator. I am also formally mentoring someone in another entity towards becoming an SE Consultant. So are there any advantages to this formal mentoring?

Advantages of formal mentoring

While my experience is limited, here are some advantages that I feel are true for formal mentoring:

  • Building capacity in the entity and the leadership knows about it – formal mentoring agreements are done with the knowledge of supervisors and domain team leaders, so it goes beyond the local office to impacting branch-wide strategy. 
  • Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it you make sure things happen.
  • Achievement and celebration – it’s satisfying to tick things off a formal list that you have agreed on! Together you can celebrate the progress.
  • New or closer relationships – a mentor has the joy of getting to know the mentee in a deeper way than they might otherwise have done and of getting to know new people if they get involved in mentoring people outside of their entity.
  • Continuity – informal mentoring usually stops if the mentor leaves or changes role, but hopefully formal mentoring would continue as it is not necessary for the mentor to be on location or, if they really can’t continue, another mentor should be found because this is for more than personal development, it is for the benefit of the whole entity.

Disadvantages of formal mentoring

There are some down sides to it too, partly dependent on your personality or situation as a mentor:

  • Feels like a burden – as soon as you make something ‘formal’ it can feel like a big responsibility that you don’t have time for. It certainly is more of a time commitment, but I think it also has the potential for clearer and better results.
  • More administration – there is more admin involved in making sure mentoring is being coordinated across an entity and followed up.
  • Long-term commitment in the midst of an uncertain future – I found it hard to enter into a two-year mentoring agreement when our work permit situation is so uncertain. It leaves me feeling worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my commitment to the mentee. (Maybe this is because another of my Gallup Strengths is ‘Responsibility’!)
  • Anxiety – it increases my anxiety levels – will I be able to help this person grow in the way that their supervisor / entity leadership is hoping?!
  • Partiality – does it look like I am showing partiality to one colleague by only being in a formal mentoring agreement with one of them? When informally mentoring I could mentor them all together and it didn’t matter if some weren’t making as much progress because there were no formal goals. That’s different now.

Just yesterday I met with one of my mentees, and it was encouraging to see him moving forward in the areas we had discussed and taking the lead in conversation, so despite the potential challenges of formal mentoring, I think it’s worth giving it a go!

What is your experience? And how could we overcome some of the perceived challenges of formal mentoring? Share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.

What kind of a mentor do you need?

by Eszter Ernst-Kurdi

Eszter Ernst-Kurdi, Training Coordinator, SIL Francophone Africa

In 2017 I conducted small-scale research with the participation of 41 students coming from 17 African countries; all involved in language development work with different organisations. 

Two of the questions I asked in focus group discussions were:

  • What kind of support do you need the most in your work? 
  • What would that support look like?

These two wordcloud images show the responses that were given by the English-speaking and the French-speaking groups:

Needs expressed by the Anglophone groups
Needs expressed by the Francophone groups

As you can see, the top felt need was a mentor in both groups. But what did the participants have in mind when they referred to the support they needed the most as a mentor?

When asked to describe what this support would look like, the participants expressed the need for a mentor who:

  • Understands their work and context 
  • Listens well
  • Gives advice and feedback (both positive and negative)
  • Helps to clarify what is expected of the mentee in their job within the organisation
  • Explains the vision, the values and the unspoken rules of the organisation
  • Models good leadership and management
  • Does not inquire only about the mentee’s work but also shows interest in the mentee’s personal and spiritual development and family life (holistic approach)
  • Develops a genuine relationship and keeps in touch
  • Encourages the mentee
  • Helps the mentee navigate conflict situations and cross-cultural issues.

Some quotes from the focus group discussions:

  • “A mentor is someone who is close to me and can encourage me.”
  • “A mentor is someone older and experienced who can give me advice. In my culture we ask the elders for guidance to see whether we are on the right track.” 
  • “I need encouragement and advice from others who are more mature.” 
  • “I would appreciate it if someone could give me intentional support to become a consultant.” 
  • “Someone who understands the challenges I face at work and encourages me.”
  • “To have someone who knows what I am working on and who prays for me.”
  • “I would like to have someone to sit down with and find a solution together to a problem.”

The findings suggest that mentoring is very much needed among African colleagues who work in language development. It seems that a robust and effective mentoring program could help people feel more at home and at ease in their organisations because they would have someone who could show them the ropes and answer their questions in a safe relationship. In many of these cultures that operate with high power distance, asking questions from one’s supervisor is not a straight-forward matter. Strong mentoring relationships will help orient people both in their jobs and in the culture and values of their organization. This is particularly important in multicultural organizations.

The responses also indicate that for a mentoring relationship to be effective in these contexts, it needs to have a genuine and deeply relational component that includes: giving advice, commitment to a long-term relationship and showing care in practical ways.

What expectations do mentees have in your context? Tell us by leaving a reply below.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

At sea

by Michael Jemphrey

Michael Jemphrey, Translation & Anthropology Consultant, SIL Francophone Africa

With two friends at university I bought a small wooden yacht thinking it would be so fun to sail round the coastline of Ireland. We bought a book about sailing and studied it a bit, looked at the pictures and got on top of the theory. We were ready to sail! On our maiden voyage we launched the boat into the Irish Sea and took off with great excitement. Minutes later we were panicking, there was water gushing up through the centerboard, the wind was blowing us off course, we were tugging at this rope and that rope to try and get the sails under control. Somehow, I can’t quite remember how, we ended back on land, after a frantic first sail of less than 15 minutes!

In our youthful enthusiasm we hadn’t realized that we needed a mentor, someone with a bit more experience, who had sailed before, to show us the ropes. Sailing is complicated – with lots of factors to take into account: wind tide, sails, other boats. Knowing the theory and putting it into practice are not the same.

Our work in SIL is also complex and increasingly so: plenty of theories and new methods on linguistics, translation, literacy, Scripture engagement, multiple multicultural partners and complex regulations to navigate. There is lots of information out there, but without a mentor we can feel all at sea. It is not just academic disciplines where mentors are needed. In a recent presentation on the launch of the Robust Mentoring initiative in Africa, directors were all saying we need mentors for our colleagues working in finance, human resources, project funding, administration.

A mentor can be so encouraging! Our leadership has determined that mentoring is so vital for our professional growth and for the robust health of our organization as we seek to serve others that it should be part of our DNA.

But there are so many questions:

  • How to find a good mentor?
  • How to be a good mentor?
  • How to find the time?
  • How to start a mentoring relationship?
  • How to finish?
  • How to navigate mentoring cross-culturally?
  • How to organize and track a mentoring program so that people don’t fall through the cracks?

This website is one way we will address these questions and challenges together, learning from one another. We will seek to use the website to 1) gather useful resources on mentoring in one place, 2) publish a short blog post several times a year to encourage interaction, 3) facilitate discussion of questions and cross-pollination of ideas.

What metaphor comes to your mind when you think of mentoring? Leave a comment below.

Welcome! / Bienvenue!

We hope that you find our website helpful. It is designed to be a place where you can find resources and share about your experiences in order to learn more about formal mentoring for sustainable development in cross-cultural settings. We trust that this blog will inspire you to invest in formal mentoring in your organisation by intentionally helping your colleagues in their professional and personal development.

Nous espérons que vous trouverez notre site web utile. Il est conçu pour être un lieu où vous cherchez des ressources et partagez vos expériences afin d’en savoir plus sur le mentorat formel pour le développement durable dans des contextes interculturels. Nous espérons que ce blog vous incitera à investir dans le mentorat formel au sein de votre organisation en aidant intentionnellement vos collègues dans leur développement professionnel et personnel.