Mentoring at a Distance

Making Long-Distance Mentoring Work

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

 When I first began working with mentoring programs, I was convinced that one of the most important ingredients in successful mentoring was the face-to-face interaction between mentor and protégé. At the time, I couldn’t find any good examples of mentoring pairs making such interactions work. Over the years, I have had a number of clients who have begun to experiment with long-distance mentoring, and I have gained a new appreciation for it. As companies become more global and technology has allowed for more work at a distance including mentoring relationships. Our firm is currently working with several programs where at least 1/3 of the partnerships are at a distance (meaning the mentor and mentee are not in the same geographic location and the majority of their mentoring is conducted over the phone), and one program that is exclusively at a distance. This last program is a global program, where mentors and protégés are separated by geography, culture, and time zones. They do not actually meet face-to-face during the course of the program, instead of conducting all of their mentoring over the phone.

We have obtained some preliminary findings from these mentoring programs about the quality of the mentoring experience. From the studies we have conducted, mentors and protégés who work at a distance experience the same level of satisfaction with their mentoring as those who meet face-to-face. In a few instances, the mentor group who worked at a distance were more satisfied than their face-to-face peers. From conversations with participants in our programs, it seems several factors may be contributing to the success the distance pairs are having. First, mentors and mentees are less likely to cancel a phone call versus an in-person meeting because it is a lower time commitment. An hour-long mentoring call is generally just that: an hour long. For an in person meeting, many mentors and protégés generally have 5 to 20 minutes of travel time on either end of the meeting, and may have to schedule other meetings around that meeting. Given busy schedules, an in-person meeting is more likely to get canceled.

Also, mentees who are scheduling phone calls over several time zones tend to schedule them at the peripheries of the day (before work or after work), making them less likely to compete with other meetings. There was a pair where the mentor was in St. Louis and the mentee was in London. On days when they had a mentoring call scheduled, the mentor would come to work at 7:00 AM to make her call. Finally, if you are on the phone, you likely have your calendar in front of you, making it easier to schedule the next call (if the schedule isn’t already set). People often forget to bring their calendars to in-person meetings, making scheduling the next interaction more challenging.

Below are some of the keys to remember when mentoring at a distance:

  • Schedule many meetings ahead, maybe even the whole year at the beginning.
  • Schedule meetings at the beginning or end of the day where they will be less likely to get canceled.
  • Schedule more meetings than you think you’ll need and give yourself permission to cancel some.
  • Exchange photographs early on. We form stronger connections when we can put a face with a name (or a voice).
  • Take advantage of different communication technology to enhance mentoring (video conferencing, net meetings, etc.).
  • Use instant messaging or other media to let your partner know you are in the office. A protégé can ping his mentor to see if she is available for an impromptu call, emulating the spontaneity of an in-person drop-in.
  • When working at a distance, look for opportunities to meet face-to-face in your normal course of travels.

A few more tips on distance mentoring can be found in a 2003 article in Healthcare Executive, linked here.