The Times, They Are A-Changin’ – And So is Leadership Development

By Ian GoverSeptember 1, 2013

It used to be that you found a mentor from within a fairly limited set of candidates, such as your boss, college professors, religious leaders, or people within your social circle.  But technology has opened up a lot of new avenues for mentoring.  Here are some characteristics of mentoring in the digital age, and the pros and cons to consider:

1. A Larger Pool of Mentors

At Everwise, we have a huge pool of potential mentors to choose from.

Social media sites increase that pool dramatically, and some recommend using them to find your mentor, although they have some severe limitations. 

As technology advances and our ability to capture the benefits of Big Data improves, you’ll have access to ever more potential mentors, with increasingly sophisticated ways of searching through them.

Pros: There’s a much greater chance of finding the right match for you from a pool of thousands than there would be from, say, a couple of dozen managers you’re in contact with at your job. You can also connect with people in external companies, in different industries, and based in other countries, all of which can broaden your perspective.

Cons: It’s hard for you as an individual to sort through thousands of people and find the right person to choose as your mentor. Part of the Everwise process is to help you through this and use a data-driven approach to find the ideal match, but on social media sites it can be overwhelming. Access to a larger group of potential mentors is only useful if you have some means of sifting through them and making a meaningful connection with the right person for you.

2. Greater Distance

Long-distance mentoring relationships used to be difficult to establish and maintain. Even if you could find a mentor in a distant location, communication options were limited. Now, with video calls, messaging apps on smartphones and dozens of other ways of keeping in touch, contacting a mentor on the other side of the world is almost as easy as stepping into your boss’s office.

Pros: Sometimes distance can be just what you need to solve a problem. A distant mentor can bring a new perspective that someone enmeshed in the norms of your workplace wouldn’t be able to. This ASME article shows the benefits of distance mentoring in the academic sphere. “A mentor at another institution may be working on something quite different from the focus at your own,” says Cornell assistant professor Hakim Weatherspoon, who mentors students across the U.S.

Cons: Although there are plenty of options for communication, it can still be harder to establish a rapport when you’re not meeting face to face. A survey in 2004 found that 67% of respondents had engaged in a long-distance mentoring relationship, and 79% found it less effective than face-to-face mentoring. 

However, there are now more ways keeping in touch than the email and telephone used by most mentors and protégés in that survey. Many people, like this Canadian medical resident, have had success with Skype and other forms of video conferencing. In our guide for partners in the Everwise process, we advise protégés and mentors to think carefully about ways to establish a comfortable working relationship over the internet. 

3. Diversity

In the past, chance encounters with people from other countries or cultures were always possible (Condoleeza Rice, for example, was mentored by Czech diplomat Josef Korbel), but the odds were stacked in favor of someone from your own culture. With online matching, it’s much easier to find a good match with someone from a very different background.

Pros: Someone whose background is different from your own is likely to have a fresh perspective and be able to help you in ways that someone closer to you could not. A study of cross-race mentoring relationships found that they allowed mentors and protégés to “explore other kinds of differences, thus broadening the perspectives of both parties.” 

This story of cross-cultural mentoring in academia shows how both the mentor Ron and protégé Juanita learned to see the world through the other’s eyes. This is something that should always happen in a good mentoring relationship, but it’s particularly valuable when the viewpoint is a very different one.

Cons: Establishing the level of trust necessary for effective mentoring to take place can be hard enough at a distance, and cultural differences add another layer of complexity. Cross-cultural mentoring requires more sensitivity and understanding. We’ll be writing about it more on the blog, but there’s a good initial guide here.

Ian Gover

Ian Gover

Co-Founder at Everwise

About the Author

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