Unlike the frustrations voiced in Dire Straits’ famous theme song for long-distance relationships, when it comes to virtual mentors, Professor Suzanne de Janasz, IMD Business School, Switzerland, discusses developmental relationships that defy time and place.

Imagine taking advice from a shipping mogul in Bangladesh. Or getting tips for your upcoming meeting in Japan over a Web-cam crossing ten time zones? Ever think of co-authoring a book with someone you’ve never seen? The Internet along with e-mail, social networks and chats, is providing a new perspective on an age-old practice – mentoring.

Anybody who is somebody has a mentor, or so we’ve been told by popular press. Protégés progress faster, receive higher compensation and are more satisfied than employees without mentors. How else can you effectively navigate a business climate characterised by layoffs, worker mobility, boundary-less careers and increased work demands? Career experts even suggest that one mentor is not enough. Savvy professionals create a network of developmental relationships that includes individuals within and outside their organisation or industry.

Who needs a mentor?

Traditionally, those who needed mentors were young, inexperienced, new entrants in the work force. Because the employee of old might stay with a company for decades before changing jobs, the need for mentoring was relatively simple and short lived. Yet, as most of the world’s economies have shifted from industrial to knowledge work, the answer to this question is quite simply, everyone.

Today’s college student will find half or more of his or her knowledge outdated by the time the degree programme ends. And seasoned employees may witness their expertise being reset to zero as technology, demography, and globalisation evolve. With most developmental support from human resources departments at a minimum, individuals must rely on themselves, or more effectively, reach out to others, to learn and build necessary competencies.

The new age of mentoring

Mentoring works best when a mentor and protégé come together informally, through similar values and interests. However, if you think that a potential mentor knocks on your door (or sends you an unsolicited e-mail), you’ll be waiting a long time. Recent research shows that people who are extroverted, have high self esteem and are achievement oriented are more likely to initiate mentoring relationships than those who are not. So what are the shy and reserved to do? Enter the virtual world of mentoring…

In today’s fast-paced, 24/7, networked world, connecting with mentors virtually is not only possible, it’s necessary. If you e-mail, Facebook, Tweet or participate in Google groups, you already realise the power and facility of connecting with others. So, if the thought of approaching a stranger to be your potential mentor scares you, there are other, equally effective, possibilities.

E-mentoring or using virtual means (e-mail, phone, Webcam) to initiate and carry out critical developmental relationships, whether via formal organisational practice or informally, is a new age developmental practice that is growing exponentially. In fact, e-mentoring is now a staple at a handful of global companies such as HP, Xerox and IBM. These companies are able to connect employees with varied developmental needs with other employees near and far.

Through virtual mentoring business leaders and organisations are able to offer insight and assistance critical to helping today’s professionals effectively navigate complex organisational changes, new field developments and career path issues. Even though the relationship between mentor and protégé is virtual, the benefits are real. In some cases, using virtual means to connect and carry out the relationship is more beneficial than using traditional means.

Real benefits

1. Avoiding gossip: While many organisational mentoring programmes arose out of a need to support diversity initiatives, the pairing of a young female with a high-ranking male can be the subject of coffee break conversations. Employees – especially those who feel they’ve been passed over for promotions and other opportunities – can’t help but gossip about their perceptions of what’s “really going on” between the mentor and protégé. Such gossip (“I know why she got the promotion…!”) is not only damaging to the reputation and credibility of the mentor and protégé, but also to the mentoring program. When protégé and mentor meet electronically, other employees have nothing to see and nothing to say.

2. Just the facts: When people meet face-to-face, they pay attention to visual cues, such as ethnicity, height, weight and fashion. Based on these characteristics, it is easy to make assumptions (perhaps even subconsciously) about someone’s values and goals. And, these characteristics may instantly create known differences in the relationship. Yet, research confirms that successful mentoring relationships are characterised by value similarity; demographic similarity does not enter into the equation. Put another way, when we converse over chat or e-mail, we are not distracted by the other’s appearance, but instead are tuned in directly to what is being communicated.

3. The whole truth: Research on computer-mediated communication (including that between virtual mentor and protégé), shows unequivocally that because relationships are free to develop without the distractions of gender and other demographic differences, trust forms more quickly than it does in face-to-face relationships. Protégés are more likely to share the whole truth, and not just “what they think their mentor wants to hear”. This is critical. What kind of advice – if any – could a mentor provide if all you tell him/her is that everything is perfect.

In online communications, there is a well-documented “electronic courage”. Those who are normally shy in person are fearless when they have the time to compose the perfect (written) confrontation or complaint. The same is true in virtual mentoring. Protégés are more willing to share openly and candidly their failures as well as their successes, and therefore stand to receive more and more useful advice from their e-mentors.

4. Managing impressions: Imagine meeting with your newly assigned mentor, the VP of Marketing, for the first time. You’ve heard she’s smart, no-nonsense, and highly regarded. You want to impress her but, in your efforts to do so, you get tongue tied and share things that put you in a less-than-positive light. Because several choices for engaging in conversations with an e-mentor are virtual (not face-to-face) and asynchronous, the e-protégé has a chance to think through and edit their communications, ensuring that all interactions – especially the early ones, crucial for building rapport and trust – are presented positively.

5. Balancing work and life: While not without its challenges, telecommuting – doing required work from home, on the road, or at a designated location – provides organisations who embrace it with greater access to employees. It also allows employees more flexibility in where and how they fulfil their multiple roles. The same is true for virtual mentoring. With an e-mentor, one need not spend time trying to schedule and reschedule meetings, activities and meals in order to have a conversation with one’s mentor. Virtual mentoring naturally gives freedom to the parties in deciding when, for how long, and how frequently they will connect – with little, if any, wasted time.

Professor Suzanne de Janasz

6. Getting access: There was a time when only the elite, high potential, or members of underrepresented groups were eligible for organisational mentoring programs. With one third of the world’s population now online, we are no longer so digitally divided. Children have access, retirees have access, even prisoners have access.

Moreover, the boundaries of time and geography are rendered irrelevant. If, as the opening paragraph suggests, a shipping mogul in Bangladesh is willing to share words of wisdom with you, you can learn from the interaction. And, over many conversations, the mogul will learn some things as well. Mentoring via virtual methods means that anyone, at any age, at any level, and in any part of the world, can connect with and share ideas with anyone else with access to a computer.

The benefits of virtual mentoring are real and the technology enabling it is readily available. There are even a handful of companies that help businesses set up mentoring systems. By taking advantage of e-mentoring practices, today’s business leaders can tap into a developmental process that extends far beyond traditional networks to enhance personal enrichment and career success. Yet for the savvy business practitioner, with or without an established corporate mentoring program, the virtual world is yours to explore.

About

Suzanne de Janasz is a professor of leadership and organisational development at IMD. She teaches in IMD’s Program for Executive Development (PED) and OWP along with many company-specific programs and publishes in a variety of outlets. Her latest book, Interpersonal Skills in Organizations (4th edition), 2011, provides leaders with the conceptual and practical tools needed for effectively leading oneself, one’s group, and one’s organisation.

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