02/21/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Virtual Mentors, Real Benefits

Imagine taking advice from a shipping mogul in Bangladesh. Or getting tips for your upcoming meeting in Japan over a web-cam crossing 10 time zones? Ever think of co-authoring a book with someone you've never seen? The age of connectivity has ushered in a new take on the age-old practice of mentoring.

Traditionally, those who needed mentors were young, inexperienced, new entrants into the workforce. Back in the day, employees might stay with a company for decades before changing jobs or retiring, making the need for mentoring simple and short-lived. Yet, as most of the world's economies have shifted from industrial to knowledge work, it is clear that everyone needs mentors. How else can you effectively navigate a business climate characterized by increased competition, changing technology, disparate demands from diverse customers, complex regulatory environments, and expectations for 24/7 availability? Lacking significant developmental support from most human resources departments, individuals must reach out to others to learn and hone necessary skills and capabilities.

Mentoring works best when a mentor and protégé come together informally, through similar values and interests. However, if you think that a potential mentor will knock on your door, you'll be waiting a long time. Research shows that people who are extroverted, have high self-esteem and are achievement-oriented are more likely to initiate mentoring relationships than those who are not. So what are the shy and reserved to do? Enter the virtual world of mentoring...

In today's fast-paced, networked world, connecting with mentors virtually is not only possible, it's necessary. If you email, Facebook, Tweet or participate in online forums, you already realize the power and facility of connecting with others. So, if you shudder at the thought of approaching a stranger to be your potential mentor, consider e-mentoring (using email, phone, videoconference to initiate and build critical developmental relationships). The practice is growing exponentially within global companies such as HP, Xerox and IBM, as well as informally initiated by smart protégés. While traditionalists may believe that "real" mentoring is only carried out face-to-face, research confirms that the benefits of mentoring -- enhanced learning, job performance, career progression, satisfaction, and even pay -- are real and tangible, even when the relationship between mentor and protégé is virtual. Moreover, virtual mentoring has a few advantages over traditional mentoring.

1. Avoiding gossip. While many organizational mentoring programs arose out of a need to support diversity initiatives, the pairing of a young female with a high-ranking male can be the subject of coffee break conversations. Employees -- especially those who feel they've been passed over for promotions and other opportunities -- can't help but gossip about their perceptions of what's "really going on" between the mentor and protégé. Such gossip ("I know why she got the promotion...!") is not only damaging to the reputation and credibility of the mentor and protégé, but also to the mentoring program. When protégé and mentor meet electronically, other employees have nothing to see and nothing to say.

2. Just the facts. When people meet face-to-face, visual cues such as ethnicity, height, weight and dress often cause us to make assumptions about others' values and goals that impair message sending and receipt. Successful mentoring relationships are characterized by value similarity; demographic similarity does not enter into the equation. When we converse over chat or email, we are not distracted by the other's appearance, but instead are tuned in directly to what is being communicated.

3. The whole truth. Research on computer-mediated communication shows unequivocally that because relationships are free to develop without the distractions of gender and other demographic differences, trust forms more quickly than it does in face-to-face relationships. Protégés are more likely to share the whole truth, and not just "what they think their mentor wants to hear." What kind of advice -- if any -- could a mentor provide if all you share is that everything is perfect. Moreover, the presence of "electronic courage" can embolden those who are normally shy in person to compose an honest dilemma or complaint. Protégés are more willing to share openly and candidly their failures as well as their successes, and therefore stand to receive more and more useful advice from their e-mentors.

4. Managing impressions. Imagine meeting with your newly assigned mentor, the VP of Marketing, for the first time. You've heard she's smart, no-nonsense, and highly regarded. You want to impress her... but in your efforts to do so, you get tongue tied and share things that put you in a less-than-positive light. Because several choices for engaging in conversations with an e-mentor are virtual (not face-to-face) and asynchronous, the e-protégé has a chance to think through and edit their communications, ensuring that all interactions--especially the early ones, crucial for building rapport and trust -- are presented positively.

5. Balancing work and life. While not without its challenges, virtual mentoring provides employees more flexibility in where and how they fulfill their multiple roles, reducing the time wasted in scheduling and rescheduling meetings, activities and meals in order to have a mentoring conversation. Virtual mentoring naturally gives freedom to the parties in deciding when, for how long, and how frequently they will connect... with little wasted time.

6. Getting Access. There was a time when only the elite, high potential, or members of underrepresented groups were eligible for organizational mentoring programs. With more than a third of the world's population now online, we are no longer so digitally divided. Children have access, retirees have access, even prisoners have access. Moreover, the boundaries of time and geography are rendered irrelevant. If, as the opening paragraph suggests, a shipping mogul in Bangladesh is willing to share words of wisdom with you, you can learn from the interaction. And, over many conversations, the mogul will learn some things as well. Mentoring via virtual methods means that anyone, at any age, at any level, and in any part of the world, can connect with and share ideas with anyone else with access to a computer.

The benefits of virtual mentoring are real and the technology enabling it is readily available. By taking advantage of e-mentoring practices, today's business leaders can tap into a developmental process that extends far beyond traditional networks to enhance personal enrichment and career success. Yet for the savvy leader, with or without an established organizational mentoring program, the virtual world is yours to explore.