Virtual mentoring – much better than “the best we can do…”
A best-practice guide to virtual mentoring
Art of Mentoring is a 100% virtual organisation – our employees are spread along the Australian east coast from Brisbane to Devonport, and for us, working from different locations and collaborating virtually is business-as-usual. Our clients are spread all around the world, with programs spanning Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Europe and the UK.
Virtual mentoring, or distance mentoring, can be surprisingly effective, even though it is not necessarily everyone’s first choice. Our Managing Director, Melissa, has written before about the art of virtual mentoring – the pros and cons of electronic communication, and the need for program managers to design a mentoring program with these in mind.
But how does virtual mentoring feel for participants? What are the advantages and disadvantages for individuals, and how do we grasp this new virtual world with both hands?
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the Art of Mentoring 2019 Mentor of the Year, Tim, and his Mentee, Lou, and found that their virtual mentoring method was key to the success of their work together.
Now I have to say up front that Tim and Lou were lucky enough to meet face-to-face, just once, at the beginning of their relationship, when a family holiday brought Tim to within an hour’s drive of Lou’s home town. Having a friendly coffee together certainly got them off to a good start, but it’s what they did next that made it extraordinary.
In their first couple of communications, Tim and Lou talked openly about the challenges that a long-distance relationship might pose, and they decided they’d meet on Skype using webcams – as awkward as it seemed it might be, they found it wasn’t too hard to let their guard down a little and work through the awkward initial phase together.
But after a couple of meetings, something still wasn’t right. They weren’t getting to the nub of the issues during their conversations, spending much of their time trying to understand where each other was coming from but rarely moving forward to new understandings, and they were getting to the end of 90 minutes with topics left to discuss. They decided to implement a preparation process – the Mentee would send an email about a week in advance with 4 or 5 topics or questions for discussion as well as a little background to her current view or dilemma. The Mentor took a couple of days to think through his answer, and sent a reply email for her to contemplate for a couple of days before their scheduled call.
When they started their facetime call, they already had their teeth firmly in the conversation! They had an understanding of each other’s position, and had articulated their own, and had the chance to think about where the conversation might go and what questions they might ask the other.
Why did this work so well?
Because they had an early, open and constructive conversation about how they would work together, this team entered their first skype call with a positive and collaborative mindset.
Because they “took stock” after a few meetings, they identified a need to try something different, and went into problem-solving to come up with a new way of working together.
Their new solution took advantage of the benefits of both email (time and space to think and formulate a response, freedom to read and respond when best suited them, avoiding distraction and apparent differences) and face-to-face conversations (non-verbal cues, spontaneous and interactive). Their separation in distance and time – when it suited them – became an opportunity rather than a hindrance, and was easily forgotten when they connected in cyberspace!
Here are some simple pointers on how to make a virtual mentoring connection powerful, many of which were employed by Tim and Lou:
- Agree up-front how the virtual nature of the relationship will work. What medium or suite of media will you use? Experiment until you find what works best for you both – some people prefer video connection, others prefer phone or email/ messaging. How often will you connect and what is a reasonable response time to a message or email?
- If you can’t connect using a visual medium, exchange photos so you each imagine what the other looks like every time you connect.
- Don’t forget to re-establish the human connection at the beginning of a call, message or email – don’t get down to work too quickly.
- Allow what might seem like awkward pauses in a phone conversation – the other person may just be thinking deeply and not ready to reply. Silence can be a precious gift that provides a chance for the speaker to arrange their thoughts or work out their own solutions before they talk.
- Have a clear agenda for each call and agree the focus of the conversation at the beginning. Really effective mentees send an agenda ahead of time with pertinent background. Some useful questions for mentors to ask include:
- What is the issue you’d like to explore?
- Why is it important to you? Why now?
- What do you genuinely know? What do you think you know? What do you feel?
- How can I help you? Are you looking for a different perspective or do you just what to bounce ideas around?
- Remember to be fully present – connecting online offers plenty of distractions. Turn off alerts from other apps so you can listen and give full attention to your partner.
- Email communication needs enough detail for the partner to understand and ask pertinent questions but not so much information that they drown in it.
- Review and take stock even more frequently than you would in a face-to-face mentoring relationship. Evaluate, every few times you connect, how the relationship is working and what could make it even more effective.
With these thoughts in mind, and a collaborative problem-solving approach, every mentoring partnership can find its own way of working that defies our preconceptions about virtual connection. Successful mentoring partners put as much effort into creating and nurturing the relationship as they do addressing the mentoring content, and what better skillset to master in the new virtual world?
© Gina Meibusch 2020