The pros and cons of virtual mentoring

mentor drawing

I’ve been interested in virtual mentoring for quite some time for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s the only way mentoring can scale. After all why constrain a mentor to their own locality when there are no doubt entrepreneurs across the country who could benefit from their mentoring? And, of course, it can be far more convenient for the mentor as you can  use your home office or anyplace with an internet connection. I have a Google alert for “virtual mentoring,” but it very rarely generates any results. However, today I found an article on virtual mentoring from the Harvard Business Review, an excellent source of the latest in business ideas and strategy.

While the focus of the article is on professional development for employees, as most mentoring is, there are still some points relevant to the mentoring of entrepreneurs.

The principle finding from the authors’ study conducted on employees of HCL Technologies was that mentors from varying domains can be of great benefit. HCL is a leading IT and software development outsourcing company based in India. HCL has over 103,000 employees, who are distributed globally across the firm’s own delivery centers and client sites.

Professors Bala Iyer and Wendy Murphy surveyed 1,200 HCL employees and analyzed their social networks and demographic data. They found that HCL’s knowledge management and collaboration tools improved individual productivity.

We found that employees who were connected to others via the KM and collaboration systems felt more highly engaged and productive than those who were not so well connected to mentors and were not active participants in the knowledge communities nurtured by the systems.

They found that the key to making productive use of mentors is asking interesting questions. And as is usual in business, reciprocity or paying it forward is a best practice: But be a good Netizen and remember to reciprocate: Answer others’ questions in a timely and helpful manner. 

While the HBS professors’ definition of mentor is much looser than mine – it seems to encompass anyone with domain knowledge to share – they do consider this to be the age of virtual mentors.

So why does one of the top mentoring organizations in the world – MITs’ Venture Mentoring Service – focus solely on face-to-face mentoring? Mainly because f2f is the highest bandwidth communication channel there is. In addition, by limiting mentors to MIT’s geographic area mentors can offer valuable local connections and even potential investors.  Another reason is that VMS uses a team mentoring approach. What I’ve found from the small number of virtual mentoring sessions I’ve conducted for the MIT Sandbox is that video conferencing works well for a one-on-one mentoring session, or even for one mentor to two founders. But the technology just isn’t suited for the multitude of interactions stemming from having a team of mentors interacting with a founding team. The non-verbal cues about when to speak and when to listen can get lost in a video session.

But non-verbal communication isn’t limited to knowing when to chime in. I find that if a founder is leaning back in their chair they probably aren’t nearly as engaged as when they lean in across the table. In fact, I’ve seen founders go from a lean back, disengaged posture to leaning in and eyes lighting up when I hit on a topic that resonated with them.

It’s also useful to observe the behavior of the other team members when one of them is talking. Are they all listening intently or staring at their phones? And while video conferencing apps like Zoom make it easy to view a presentation during a remote mentoring session doing so cuts into your view of the founding team.

So here are the takeaways on virtual mentoring:

  • It can enable founders to find mentors with expertise in different domains
  • It can be more convenient not just for mentors but for mentees as well
  • VM is not well suited to team or group mentoring – the aperture is too small
  • VM can be very useful in a large corporation, enabling staff to tap into expertise across the enterprise as well as outside it
  • VM can bring get staff into the habit of searching out and finding outside expertise which can be shared with their colleagues

So my search for instances of virtual mentoring of entrepreneurs will continue, but in the meantime there are lessons to be learned from mentoring that takes place in a large company like HCL. Perhaps I’ll contact the two authors of the HBS Review and try to convince them to study virtual mentoring of entrepreneurs.

Finally, perhaps I’m overly sensitive, but I find the authors’ illustration of a mentor to be less than flattering. This guy looks like a hermit who has just emerged from his cave. And he’s not looking happy about it!




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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