Can virtual mentoring like LinkedIn’s work for entrepreneurs?


The MIT Venture Mentoring Service, one of the oldest (17 years) and most successful mentoring programs in the world, is steadfastly against virtual mentoring. It is a strong believer in the value of face-to-face mentoring. In addition, what truly makes VMS run is team mentoring, and teams can grow to 4 or 5 members. Add in two founders and you can have a meeting with 6 or 7 people. That’s not a problem in a conference room where experienced mentors help founders to set an agenda and keep meetings on track – not allowing any one person to dominate the conversation and also insuring that everyone in the room has a chance to participate in the conversation. But it becomes a crowd when virtually mentoring.

While I believe face-to-face meetings are far more effective than virtual ones, with the possible exception of using 6-figure video conferencing systems from Polycom or other vendors, I see a place for virtual mentoring. But before getting into that, let’s look at LinkedIn’s new virtual mentoring program for its members. Like a large proportion of mentoring activity, LinkedIn is focused on career development, not entrepreneurs or startups. But is there something to learn from LinkedIn’s new program?

The Fast Company article LinkedIn Is Testing A New Feature That Matches You With A Mentor has an informative sub-title: LinkedIn aims to tap the entire user community to make matches between mentees and leaders with less commitment than traditional mentorship relationships.

The article begins by clearing outlining the problem: Mentorship can be a valuable stepping stone to career advancement both for the mentee and their mentor. Yet, many of us never have a formal mentor relationship.

And how do workers solve it now? According to LinkedIn, they have to go outside their companies to find a mentor.

But LinkedIn has some important data on its users: 89% of senior leaders on LinkedIn would be interested in giving advice. Among those seeking advice, exploring career options was one of the top issues they wanted to discuss with a mentor.

Hari Srinivasan, director of product management at LinkedIn has an observation that applies equally to founders as to corporate employees: One of the reasons mentorships fail is because the mentee isn’t always able to articulate what they need or asks too much of a mentor. However, commitment on the part of the founders and mentors is critically important. For that reason I think LinkedIn’s so-called mentoring program may not succeed from the get-go.

However, Suzi Owens, group manager of Consumer Products, Corporate Communications makes it clear that LinkedIn’s program is not a substitute for long-term mentorship. The program is being rolled out very slowly, to a small set of members. So it will take some time to evaluate it’s results. My prognosis is that the entire program will drop the term mentorship, as what they are really developing is a quick and easy way to get advice from LinkedIn members who are a good match. But on the fly career advice from total strangers is hardly mentorship. The LinkedIn program is closer to Quora than true virtual mentoring.

But I’ve done several virtual mentoring sessions as an individual with one or two founders and these sessions have worked well. There are several key elements to a successful virtual mentoring session:

  • The founders and mentor must have worked together face to face to build trust and learn each other’s communication style. I would never attempt to mentor someone I had never had at least one and preferably more F2F sessions with.
  • The founding team participating needs to be kept to one or two. Skype and other video conferencing apps just can’t handle large groups well.
  • As in a face to face meeting, it’s critical that people don’t interrupt or talk over each other.
  • Any presentation or other document is best sent ahead of team, so mentors don’t have to multitask by reviewing a presentation and providing feedback in real time.
  • Whatever conferencing app you are using, make sure to test it ahead of time.
  • Everyone needs to make an effort to start the meeting on time. It can really throw things off if one founder has to text the co-founder to find out why they aren’t on the call.
  • Sessions should be kept to 30 minutes or less, a third of the time of standard VMS sessions, as mentoring virtually is fatiguing.

But virtual mentoring can come in handy when founders are traveling, you don’t have to wait for the to return home to set up an F2F meeting. And scheduling virtual meetings can be easier than in-person meetings.

The bottom line on virtual mentoring, at least with today’s widely available technology, is that it is a useful supplement to founders and mentors meeting f2f. But it is far from a substitute, just as email, texting and conference calls can supplement in-person meetings when it’s not possible or practical to meet in person.

So I plan to offer virtual mentoring to founders outside of VMS, which frowns on the practice. I hope that LinkedIn will develop and share their best practices for virtual mentoring, despite the real differences between career mentoring and entrepreneurship mentoring.







Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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