A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group outplaced Wall Street Executives via teleconference and that’s where I first crossed paths with Andrea Rice, co-founder and President of Gotta Mentor. After the session, we exchanged a few emails and that’s when we got on the topic of the pros and cons of face-to-face versus virtual mentoring. And like any exchange of ideas you’ll find on your run-of-the-mill a cable news network, we decided to explore the subject point, counter-point style. Now on to the debate…
Andrea: Face-to-face mentoring is so old school. In the digital age, information, including career advice, can be disseminated so much more freely online. Why meet with one gray-haired person infrequently to get one perspective, when you can tap into a global knowledgebase and engage multiple people and get multiple opinions so easily?
Shawn: Making meaningful connections with a mentor is next to impossible via email. Instead of being one of the small number of in-person meetings he or she might have on a given day, it's more than likely you're email could get swept up with the hundreds of others in his or her inbox, never to be seen again. I'll take the face-to-face meeting with a mentor any day of the week.
Andrea: I agree with you in part. You’ll benefit much more from a face-to-face with someone who knows you really well and is willing to really spend time with you, but honestly, so few people have that kind of person in their life. Also, most of the time you really just want a specific question answered, not 30 minutes of questions. What email, search engines, blogs, and community-oriented websites offer is access to so many more people who can be tremendous resources for specific questions you have. If you have a particular question, you can bet that lots of other people have had that question as well. Pose that question on the right website or email the question to 5 people at 11pm and by 7 am the next day you’ll have 3 answers. You won’t get your mentor to answer the phone or the door at 11 at night.
Shawn: But therein lies my point. If you're looking for a quick answer to a question, you can Google it. But that's not going to form the type of relationships that you'll need if you're looking for someone to give you specific feedback based on your individual circumstances—that requires your mentor taking time to get to know you, your situation, development gaps, etc. After all, they are the ones who are going to help you successfully navigate your career. And just to make sure everyone is on the same page, it's never a good idea to show up on your mentor's door at 11:00pm regardless of whether they answer or not.
Andrea: I think we’re getting to the root of our differences. Traditionally a mentor has been thought of as the sage advisor who works with you over a period of time to help you advance your career objectives. My point is that the Internet creates a tremendous opportunity to broaden that definition and get even more great advice from more people. Peer mentors for example can give you great insight into the day-to-day requirements of a job, and since they were just in your shoes, very tactical suggestions on things you can do to get where they are. You won’t get that specificity from the person who’s 10-20 years older than you. People with perhaps 3-5 years more experience than you can offer detailed insight into the roadmap to get where they are, and in the trenches guidance on industry trends, company culture issues, etc. That senior person might be great for those face-to-face meetings to help you answer the more challenging career decisions. Most of the career questions people have can be addressed by the first two mentor types I described, whether they know you well or not. The Internet lets you easily access more of those people.
Shawn: Great points. And it can also depend on each person's preferred method of communication. I once worked with someone who was capable of reading emails, but who would never (and I mean never) respond. But leave him a voicemail, and he'd get back to you immediately. At one point, I remember wondering if he had a computer and mouse, but no keyboard.
Andrea: Maybe you should have bought him a voice-to-text converter. I think we both agree that mentors, whether you engage them in person or online, can be enormously influential in your career. Neither type of mentoring works, however, if you are unprepared for the engagement. As much as you might wish they had all the questions and all the answers, they don’t. Give them something to react to — specific questions, your plan to handle the tough situation you’re in, a resume without obvious problems — and you’ll get much more out of your mentor.