Mentorship is as old as human society, perhaps even older. Before written communication, the only way information was passed down was from one person directly to another via speech and demonstration—monkey see, monkey do. However, nowadays, communication has evolved to that point that we oftentimes don’t see each other at all, but instead connect from across great distances without any semblance of physical interaction.
Indeed, the digital age has changed the way that human beings communicate with one another to such an extent, that the oldest form of passing knowledge from one human to another has also changed. Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, sees this change clearly.
“The traditional definition of a mentor—someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less-experienced and often younger person—needs to be both updated and broadened for today’s workplace,” she says in an article with Forbes.
So what exactly has changed, and how should those looking for digital mentorship proceed?
Seeking Mentorship and Investing in the Relationship
In the old days, one might have had to go out looking for a guild of artisans, an enclave of scholars, or an aristocratic patron before they’d find anybody qualified to mentor them. All of that assumes that these aspiring mentees weren’t stuck with whomever lived in their isolated village or hamlet.
Fast-forward to the digital age, and you can essentially find a mentor halfway across the world without ever leaving your couch. As such, the problem isn’t finding a mentor anymore, but finding the right mentor, utilizing the appropriate tools and approach. For those just starting out seeking mentorship in the modern era, there are a couple of places to start. Anna Johansson, writing for Entrepreneur lists the seven best places to start:
- Online Mentorship Networks: There are plenty of websites, apps, and platforms dedicated to linking mentors and mentees up in the digital age. com released their “9 Top Platforms for Finding a Mentor in 2016” to address this specifically, and though the piece is a couple years old, it’s still pertinent.
- Professional Networking Events: Even in the digital age, people like to speak face-to-face to their potential mentorship counterparts. The IRL nature of these events might owe to better relationship building, even if it does lose the convenience of digital access and interaction.
- Fitness Classes and Groups: Johansson states that “businesspeople generally like to stay active to maintain their health, relieve stress and find new contacts, which is why you’ll frequently find them in fitness classes and fitness-related groups.” While these traits definitely don’t define all successful business people, these classes are still a good place to start.
- Volunteer Events: People who are wealthy and want to give back to their communities can often be found at volunteer events. Go to a couple and try to clandestinely feel out potential mentorship opportunities before making your intentions clear — the earnest attention to volunteer work and willingness to give without asking for anything in return will make you look that much more promising to potential mentors.
- Industry Meetups: Professional networking events can lead to a lot of handshakes with people who don’t know your industry at all, even though they might be great mentors in their own right. Industry-specific conferences, trade shows, and networking events ensure that not only will you be brushing shoulders with potential mentors, but also that they’ll be qualified professionals within your industry of interest.
- Social Media: You can find mentors by seeking out their profiles on social platforms via simple keyword searches. Many of these people—the ones that are highly visible, at least—get mentorship requests both in high volume and from people who have never met them before. Try to build a relationship with these people for a substantial amount of time before requesting that they mentor you.
- Any Public Location: Johansson is essentially saying to keep your ear to the ground and your eyes peeled. Mentors are just normal people like you and me. They walk around town, go out to lunch, and get coffee—possibly from the same coffee shop you do. Always be on the lookout for a potential mentor, no matter where you are.
Remember that even though you may have met your mentor in person, the relationship you are about to build with them will likely be largely conducted via digital means, and will require renewed interest and investment to move past initial stages.
There are two things to take away from that statement—the first being that mentorship is indeed a two-way street, a relationship, and not just an opportunity for the mentee to reap whatever they can from a mentor.
“Mentoring is mutually beneficial,” writes career advice author Hailie Rogers. “Both parties benefit from the lasting professional relationship being built. It is not only fulfilling for a mentor to cultivate success through his/her mentee, it’s also an opportunity for the mentor to learn from the mentee the new changes and challenges occurring in the current professional landscape.”
This leads into the second major takeaway: be ready to invest your time and energy into this relationship. You can’t expect a mentor to take you seriously if you’re not willing to invest fully in the mentorship experience. Don’t waste your potential mentor’s time, because it’s rude and it will make you look bad—just see how many professionals avoid specific mentee candidates after word gets out that they’re lazy or disinterested.
On the other hand, if you’re ready to take mentorship seriously, you’ll find that mentees only reap as much as they sow. The flip side is that the more you put into this relationship, the more you’ll both get out in the end.
Establishing Expectations and Monitoring Results
After you’ve found your mentor, built rapport, and set aside time and energy to invest in the relationship, you’ll want to begin establishing expectations between one another. This means voicing specific concerns or career goals that you might have, asking your mentor about their own concerns and what they expect specifically from you, and ultimately plotting out a course to achieve those expectations within the parameters agreed upon by mentor and mentee alike.
While planning and preparation are essential to just about any success (because those who don’t plan, plan to fail!), combined they form the absolute lynchpin of digital mentorship. Mentor and mentee might only meet face to face on rare occasion—if at all—and yet they must be in sync enough to organize expectations, communicate progress, and monitor results, among other things. As such, successful mentorships leverage the proper tools and technology to facilitate a positive experience and to produce efficient results.
The good news is that, with the rise in popularity of the gig economy and remote work trends, many businesses adapting to digital change and disruption are already exploring these tools and processes. Manager/employee relationships (in an ideal world) bear some semblance to mentorship relationships, so it follows that many of the same solutions that work for digital enterprises will work for you. Bree Brouwer with Asset Panda lists six areas in which developing technologies are revolutionizing industries, allowing for succinct execution of digital projects no matter where its participants are located:
- Communication: There are a lot of ways to communicate nowadays, which can be both a good thing as well as a bad thing. Imagine: the mentee believes that their mentor is readily accessible via email, but the mentor instead prefers a text or phone call to checking their email inbox. This type of communication breakdown can derail mentorships before they even truly begin. Agree on modes of communication, times at which you are available for direct contact, and period of time in which you can reasonably expect a response if a communication is missed.
- Organization: Neither mentor nor mentee will be able to keep track of expectations, progress, results, or even scheduled meetings or check-ins without proper organizational tools. Depending on your needs, these can be as simple as shared calendars and task lists, or as robust as a full work/management software platforms, such as Asana.
- Tracking: Time and asset tracking software are essential tools for organizations with employees that are spread across the globe. In terms of mentorship, these same tools can be used in the same way, though they would likely be better utilized to track tasks, progress, deliverables, and any physical or virtual assets related to your specific mentorship projects and experience.
- Productivity: Productivity tools can be specific solutions tailored to the industry or career your mentorship experience is based around, or they can be more generic, tangential tools that help workers feel more relaxed and comfortable, in turn, making them more productive. Write or Die is an interesting example, using a carrot and stick approach to get writers pumping out words within a certain time period—or face dire consequences. Search for tools specific to you and your field to help keep your workflow consistent and your expectations met.
- Security: An uptick in global data breaches and cyber-attacks have been affecting business large and small, to the point that they really aren’t preventable. Instead, many are investing reactionary solutions such as small business data breach insurance or backup/recovery services. Make sure that your data and assets are backed up, protected, and recoverable if corrupted or lost. One bad brush with malware can muck up your entire mentorship experience.
- Accessibility: Lastly, the proliferation of the internet of things (IoT) means that people aren’t just working from computers or laptops anymore, but also from phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Make sure that accessibility isn’t an issue for you or your mentor and that all of these tools work across the platforms you utilize.
Use these tools and tech to communicate easily and consistently, set clear expectations with one another, and to monitor the results and accomplishments stemming from your mentorship experience.
Analysis and Adaptation
Now that you’ve found your mentor, set expectations, and have been monitoring results, it’s time to analyze your efforts to date, and adapt your plan accordingly. As a protégé, did you accomplish everything in the amount of time you and your mentor allotted for in the planning stage? If not, you and your mentor must figure out where along the line the kinks are so that you can work them out. On the other hand, if you’re ahead of schedule, you might be able to take on more work than you original planned for without burning yourself out.
The point of this stage is to optimize your strategy by establishing new expectations that better suit your mentorship experience. From there, you’ll essentially rinse and repeat — monitor results, analyze your efforts, and then adapt your strategy once more with new expectations, repeating the cycle. The longer you practice these cycles and the more experience you attain through your mentorship program, the smaller these adaptations will become.
It’s important to realize that the point of refining and adapting your strategy is not to eventually create a perfect system. The world and everything in it is in a constant state of change, and so too must you be, if you wish to succeed within it. Over time (a long period of time) you may find that you’ve adapted, have overcome substantial challenges, and have become experienced enough in your field to be a mentor in your own right. As stated before, mentoring is a two-way street that benefits both mentor and mentee; however, the global economy is in dire need of more experienced mentors, and more mentorship experiences.
“Mentorship is key to solving under-employment and creating opportunity,” writes Diana Rau for Forbes. “Though global unemployment fluctuates around 200m people, more than 1B people are underemployed. That’s literally 1 in 7. We talk a lot about creating economic opportunity and the power of education. The power of relationships & networks, aka mentorship, is just as important a topic when it comes to access to opportunity.”
Rau also posits that workforce engagement challenges and issues can be solved via mentorship, and one could easily extrapolate that other social ills—knowledge or skills gaps in IT and other technical industries, for example—could also be remedied.
By following the above tips, you’ll be on your way to finding a mentor and mastering your craft/excelling at your career in no time.