Office technology has created challenges for businesses, but it has also reaped some opportunities. One of these has to do with mentoring. Mentors need not wait to exchange information in person. They can, instead, communicate via e-mail or voicemail, intranet or Internet. They can also use cell phone for emergency calls to provide advice.
Because electronic communication can be as effective as face-to-face communication, a manager can quickly answer a question or offer advice on a work problem rather than wait for the next scheduled meeting. Most important, the technology allows mentoring relationships to exist even where those involved work in different locations—not only in different offices but even in different countries.
There are four key steps in most mentoring relationships, and they are as applicable in what has come to be called “distance mentoring” as in traditional mentor relationships:
1. Building the relationship
2. Setting clear expectations
3. Monitoring results
4. Providing feedback
Let’s look at each step from the perspective of distance mentoring.
While sending e-mail may be quick and easy, it shouldn’t be the only form of communication. Nor should it be the first form of communication. If possible, both the mentor and mentee should meet in person to share their objectives in the relationship. Besides identifying business reasons to be in the same city periodically, they should also try to schedule a social engagement with each other once in a while. Such social occasions can go a long way toward bonding the relationship.
If such meetings are difficult, the bonding process which is important to mentoring may grow at a slower pace than a traditional face-to-face relationship. It will take more time and effort for both parties to feel comfortable with the other and for trust to grow between them. However, over the long term, such relationships can work as well as traditional mentoring relationships.
Setting Clear Expectations
As you would do in any mentoring relationship, ask your mentee if he or she has specific concerns or career goals. Share with the mentee, too, how you hope to assist him or her. Be clear about your commitment to your protégé. Some protégés assume that you will be more accessible because you are both communicating via e-mail, but that may not actually be the case.
Planning is critical to the success of any mentoring relationship, but it is especially important if it is virtual. If communication is via phone, then planning is important not only in the mentoring relationship, but with each and every conversation to ensure that both you and the mentee go away from the phone conversation feeling that something was accomplished.
At the start of the relationship, you and your protégé should decide how often you will communicate, as well as when, how, and what will be communicated. With a schedule in place for communications, you will avoid falling into the “out of sight, out of mind” trap that can harm long-distance relationships.
Those who run phone meetings should begin the conversation with a review of the mentee’s last assignment or outcome of the planned activity discussed during the previous phone call. What did the protégé accomplish? Was there something new that the protégé tried and was met with success? What challenges did the protégé overcome, and what challenges does he or she still feel need to be met?
Finally, the two should discuss those activities the protégé will be focused on until the next phone call.
As mentor, you can also call your mentee to just say hello and ask how things are going. Also, encourage your protégé to check in, say hello, and share good news. Even if the phone is your predominant means of communication, e-mail is also a good way to keep in touch. For instance, if you come across an article on the Internet that can help your protégé, send the URL to him or her.
In providing feedback via phone, be wary of nonverbal signals. Sometimes you can tell how your mentee feels about what you are saying not by what she is saying but how she is saying it. Keep your ear tuned for a rising or lowering of her voice, a change in tone, a quickening or slowing of speaking pace, sighs, pauses, and worst of all, ominous silence.
In distance communications, you can’t rely on body language to measure reaction to feedback. In phone conversations, you will have to tell your protégé what you are sensing. Clarify feelings by asking your mentee how she feels about your remark.
Focus on specifics—don’t settle for generalities. Ask your mentee to express thoughts and opinions clearly and with focus. After all, you have to understand where your protégé is coming from to make the mentoring relationship worthwhile for you both.