Virtual Mentoring

In practice virtual mentoring can be a hybrid of telephone calls, video conferences, Skype calls, the exchange of emails, occasional texts and the odd face to face meeting if one or both of the parties has the opportunity to travel on business to the other’s location.

This article suggests 7 tips for successful virtual mentoring.

Tip 1: Sharing information

Whilst in face to face mentoring sessions, people can often quickly establish rapport through picking up on the tone of voice or facial expressions and mirroring body language. This can be harder to do via telephone or video conference which is why in virtual mentoring it is recommended the individuals focus on building rapport early on by sharing as much information about themselves as they find comfortable. In his book “Everyone Needs a Mentor” Clutterbuck suggests using some of the following questions in order to tap into the emotional personality of the mentee/ mentor.

  • What do you care passionately about?
  • What are you most proud of in your career?
  • What do you enjoy most about your work?
  • How would other people describe you?
  • What is your biggest ambition in work, outside of work?
  • Who do you admire and why?

Tip 2: Don’t jump straight in

It is often good to start each virtual session in the same way you would start a traditional face to face mentoring session asking after health and families, the weather (if you are British) etc before jumping straight into the first agenda item. In some cultures it can be seen as very rude to go straight to business.

Tip 3: Cross-cultural awareness

With virtual mentoring, there is a strong likelihood that individuals will be mentoring someone from a different culture and background be that international, gender, generational or regional. In this case the potential for stereotyping, which can reduce the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship, is high. It is therefore vital to spend some time in your virtual mentoring pair exploring each other’s culture. How is time viewed, what are the rules (written and unwritten), how is power shared/displayed, how do people view hierarchy and responsibility, how open are you with your emotions, how are decisions reached in that culture? Share some assumptions you have about your mentor/mentee’s culture, and find out how accurate they are. For example:

  • My assumption is that your culture sees organizations as very hierarchical where the boss is always right and you don’t contradict of challenge him or her, is that correct for you? Tell me more about that.
  • My assumption is that you have a very optimistic attitude because you come from the USA where people have a very “can do” attitude. Is that true for you?

Tip 4: Telephone manner

In virtual mentoring be aware that you may have a different tone of voice, body posture and manner when on the telephone or video conference as opposed to when talking to someone face to face. The difference is less noticeable in generations who grew up with universal access to mobile and internet phones but can be quite marked for those who did not. Try to ensure your telephone or video conference style is as relaxed and natural as your face to face style.

Tip 5: Don’t be afraid of the silence

Another difference is the degree to which individuals are comfortable with silence on the phone. A few seconds face to face silence when you can see someone planning to articulate their thoughts and feelings can be easier than the same amount of silence on the other end of the line. In western society people change radio channels after 4.5 seconds of silence – hardly enough time for a reflective sigh. Remember Nancy Kline’s assertion that the head that contains the issue also contains the solution – pause and let the silence continue – there is thinking going on.

Tip 6: Learning log

Another aid to maintaining and building rapport remotely is for the mentee to keep a learning log and to share highlights and reflections via email. This not only helps to maintain continuity between sessions but can also stimulate quality questions at the next session as the mentor will have had time to digest the content. This log can help both the mentor and the mentee to spot patterns or repetitions that they may not have picked up in the speed of face to face conversations. Using the occasional text to check-in or communicate a success can be a real boost for both mentor and mentee. In the middle of a gruelling business trip getting a light hearted “Thanks for listening – I tried out what we discussed and it worked!” can be as uplifting as the mentee getting a “Well done” in response.

Tip 7: Generous listening

Finally remember that it is just as important to listen respectfully and generously during remote mentoring as it would be if the person were in the room with you. That means turning off other phones/ blackberries and refraining from checking emails - typing on a keyboard is not silent and can be heard on the other end of the line.

With email, texts, telephone, Skype and video conferencing and the global nature of our businesses today, having a virtual mentor/ mentee can be as interactive and as beneficial as having one in the next office.

Nicola Shearer MBA MEng (Oxon) is a Global Coach and Director of Little Springtime based in Sierra Leone and UK. She has a track record of supporting leaders of FTSE 100 companies as well as Government at National Level. nicolashearer@littlespringtime.com

The DUBS Mentor Scheme is continually recruiting new mentors. If you are interested in supporting a current student, please contact the DUBS Alumni Relations Team on business.alumni@durham.ac.uk. The team will be able to share more information about the scheme including a video link and pocketbook that explains the expectations and requirements for both a mentor and mentee.