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Mentoring From Afar – Go the Distance To Grow Top Talent

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Your organization is lucky to have retained some extraordinary talent despite the best efforts of your top competitors to lure them away. Among these key employees are a few dozen freshly minted MBAs and several mid-level managers who have been hand- picked to take on senior positions once the current crop of baby boomer executives has retired.

Luckily, your organization has a formal program where high-potential employees are paired with seasoned mentors. Problem is, your mentorship program was designed for frequent face-to-face interactions, and most of your high-flying employees are scattered across multiple locations, with only rare opportunities to see their mentors face to face.

Joining me in writing this edition of Communiqué is Management-Mentors President Rene Petrin. Together we address several challenges associated with a virtual mentoring relationship. Among them: Fewer opportunities for contact, limited communication channels, and difficulty in cultivating the kind of trust that’s required for a mutually rewarding relationship.

  • Set realistic expectations. This is especially important to nail down at the outset, since there are few opportunities to rectify differences if they go unchecked. Before the first meeting, follow this simple process: have the mentoree articulate his or her expectations, clarify to make sure you understand, and then gain agreement. If your mentoree has unrealistic expectations about your availability, for example, you can facilitate differences on the very first call, allowing you to draw up a contract that makes sense for both of you.
  • Establish agreed-upon ground rules. At a minimum, make sure you agree on frequency and duration of meetings, time of day, confidentiality, setting of the agenda, methods of contact, and important matters of protocol. Examples: Each person will have paper copies of all pertinent information at their fingertips. Calls will be taken away from all computers. Each participant will focus entirely on the conversation. Both parties will take calls in a private setting away from distractions and interruptions. Mentoring sessions will be postponed only in the case of a personal emergency.
  • Find ways to cultivate trust quickly. If at all possible, hook up face-to-face early in the relationship. If not, find opportunities to meet in person on the way to or from another venue. Try using video conferencing for early sessions so you can pick up vital nonverbal cues and develop a better sense of your partner. Especially if no close relationship exists between mentor and mentoree, meet frequently (ideally, 60-90 minutes per week) for the first two to three months. Once you’ve established a trusting and collaborative relationship, you can move to meeting every other week for at least 90 minutes per session.
  • Get to know your partner as an individual.Find out more about each other socially and culturally. Ask questions to help you discover more about his/her background, influencers, goals, desires and fears. Don’t be afraid to bring up topics that may be considered taboo in other settings, such as how race, gender or religion may affect one’s career. Sending photos of each other as well as family members, favorite places, homes, etc. also helps to paint a more complete picture of each individual.
  • Respect communications preferences in every interaction.A good way to get a head start on successful communications between partners: Use some sort of communications preferences/style instrument, many of which are available online. Make sure to gain agreement up front that both of you agree to share your reports. Once reports are shared, discuss how knowing about each other’s types and preferences will affect ongoing communications. (Example: “I value brief, direct and blunt communications, but I realize that you prefer to collect data and internalize the meaning before making a response. Let’s discuss how we can accommodate these differences in our written and spoken communications.”)
  • Build in opportunities for spontaneity.While having an agenda as a guide for each conversation is important to staying focused, make sure that you build in time for conversations that take unexpected turns. A predictable structure should help guide conversations, but should not stifle the discussion. Mentors who are managers are often tempted to manage the discussion, adhering closely to the agenda. Resist the temptation and instead engage fully in a real two-way conversation. If some agenda items did not get covered, agree on which ones take priority for the next meeting.
  • Know the meaning of mentoring across cultures.Discuss what mentorship means in each of your cultures, whether organizational or national. Explore how giving and getting advice might be different across cultures, especially if you work at different levels in the organization. For example, in some cultures, directives are expected from people in senior positions, while a suggested range of options might be baffling. Some cultures expect some type of criticism, while others bristle at hearing anything negative. Bottom line: If you’re entering a mentoring relationship with someone from another culture, learn everything you can about how your differences might affect your relationship, and plan accordingly.
  • Fulfill your commitments. When mentoring partners work from a distance, it may be easier to postpone or cancel a mentoring session, simply because people feel less accountable to those who can’t see them everyday. Demonstrate how seriously you take these sessions by showing up for each session, fully prepared for a productive conversation. If you must postpone-and this should be done very rarely- explain why and offer a choice of days/times to reschedule, rather than skipping this session. If your schedules require that you skip a session, tack on time to the next one to make up for the lost time.
  • Interactive conversations may not always mean same-time.Consider the use of asynchronous conversations to augment phone meetings. This can be especially helpful if partners work across timezones, or when language barriers inhibit communications. For example, you and your partner may set up a private virtual conference area where both of you can post and respond to questions. On your phone meeting, you can review the content of your virtual conference area as a springboard for a live conversation. Likewise, you may choose to use email in some situations as well. Leave it to the mentoree to suggest alternative communication methods that work well for both of you.

Can a long-distance mentoring relationship really work? Absolutely, as long as both parties are ready, willing and able to cultivate the kind of trust that’s needed for a mentoring program to really take root. And when working from a distance, this requires a lot more thought, creativity, exceptional planning and unwavering commitment. But it’s all worth the ROI that’s sure to follow if you can energize and groom your top talent to successfully take on new levels of responsibility.