Virtual Mentors: How to Find One and Build the Relationship

Social distancing, remote working and home offices have thrown the traditional workplace structure into the air, and that includes the process of finding mentors for your career.

Even in the best of times, establishing a successful and long-lasting mentor/mentee relationship requires pluck and a willingness to put yourself out there—so how can one reproduce that process through online-only means?  

New Tools Help Build the Mentoring Relationship

For James Lloyd, chief technology officer at Redox, an EHR interoperability company, remote working for the past five years has given him some unique insights into how to build relationships through digital means. 

“We’ve started using something called Donut, a Slack plug-in, which tries to connect you with someone you don’t interact with very often,” he explained. “It suggests outreach where you can set the frequency—we’ve been using that for four months, and I meet with a new person every two weeks, and it’s pretty fun.” 

When it comes to setting up a more serious in-depth mentor/mentee relationship, he points to a service called Plato, a mentoring platform for product and engineering oriented people, which is run entirely virtually.

“I’ve been a mentor on there for two years, and they have a pretty great matchmaking service, where you can specify what you want to learn and they try and set you up,” he said. “Their model is to try to get people to find a long-term mentor, so you as a mentee can have as many one-time conversations you want, and eventually you find one or two people that you can enter into a long-term mentorship with.” 

Once that relationship is established, setting a schedule to meet—preferably via video, at least to start—is a critical step, and Llyod recommends being fluid and open to different types of “meetings.” He’s had great conversations while playing virtual chess or strolling around. 

“There’s a prioritization—I think the visual component and the body language component is really important, so I think video is better than phone, but phone is better than chat, that’s the way I would rank them,” he said.

Video also adds a fluidity and immediacy that other platforms may lack. “On both sides of the relationship, there’s a lot of responses that consist of getting to the next level of ‘why?’, which seems very onerous in chat, but very natural in verbal communication,” he explained.

Building the Connection

Sara Riedl Vice President of People at Iterable, a growth marketing platform for cross-channel customer engagement, said a 15-20 minute chat over the phone is a good first step when approaching someone as a potential mentor—who, she notes, could be someone from within your own organization or outside of it. 

“I would recommend starting to map out what you envision for the mentor-mentee relationship—by getting in touch once a week or once a month, so the other person knows what they’re getting into,” she said. “Trust and confidentiality are important things to bring up, just so the person knows what the conditions are of the mentoring relationship.”

Like Lloyd, Riedl suggested that, when communicating via digital means, video calls can be a good way to establish a closer connection with your mentor, as they will allow you to read certain visual cues and expressions. 

“I do think a video element makes it easier, especially if you don’t know your mentor that well, because it’s the way humans work, right?” she said. “We try to read someone else’s body language, and sometimes it’s hard to read someone’s voice. Does this person smile when they talk? These things are important when you get to know someone.” 

As the relationship progresses and the two people get more comfortable with each other, simple phone calls might suffice. “It’s also worth noting that video calls are not the same as meeting someone in person, but that’s the imperfect world we are living in right now,” Riedl said. 

She pointed to simple digital scheduling tools, and use of an invite function, to set up recurring meetings as a good way to establish a constant exchange between the mentor and the mentee. 

“That really helps, because if you just leave it to a random contact, you lose track of time, and so taking advantage of scheduled meetings in something like Google Calendar is a good idea,” she said. 

In the end, Riedl noted, the use of digital platforms and applications in establishing a virtual mentorship can only go so far. 

“Ultimately in a mentoring relationship, it’s about two people having a conversation, and that doesn’t require a lot of additional tools, it’s just about connecting, that could be through video or audio,” she said. “Picking a rhythm of meeting that works for both the mentor and the mentee is important. Everyone is probably already in Zoom calls and very busy, so finding a rhythm is important to ensure the relationship is sustainable.”