When Heather Whaling stood on stage at the Ohio Growth Summit last week, she spoke about the importance of having a great mentor who inspires and guides you as you grow your business. For the public relations entrepreneur, who runs a boutique agency called Geben Communication, there is one person who gives her invaluable advice on a daily basis. That person, however, might be hard-pressed to recall Whaling's name. That's because they've never met, never discussed the mentorship, and never exchanged much more than a few fleeting characters in the Twittersphere.
While it's easy to dismiss this relationship as nothing more than the admirer and the admired, the reality is that for many business professionals a virtual mentorship is as close as some people will ever get to meeting their professional heroes. In Meredith C. Fineman's recent post on how to "Feed Your Career Octopus," she shares some excellent advice on how to find and keep awesome (face-to-face) mentors. The problem is, as more people work remotely, job-hop from gig to gig, and dive into careers that never existed 10 years ago, the mentorship "dating" climate has cooled, and it requires new tactics. There's a good chance you can't relate to the executive in the office next door or the professor from your old college, so the next best place to find a mentor just might be on—brace yourself—Twitter.
"It’s so easy now to strike up a conversation and, over time, build a meaningful relationship 140 characters at a time," says Whaling. "Eventually, you may want to move that relationship beyond just Twitter if possible, but I don’t think that’s a requirement. You can learn a lot by identifying people who seem to share your worldview and just following their speaking, writing, and activities online."
Three Advantages of Virtual Mentors on Twitter
1. They Can't Say No
It can be disheartening to email someone you admire, with a long list of compliments, who doesn't email you back. However, let's face it, a lot of people are just too busy to take on the role of mentoring someone—especially someone they don't know well. "'Mentor' feels like very big shoes to fill," writes Fineman. "I've been on the other side, and it can feel like a lot of pressure and give you the opposite result—the person might feel overwhelmed." While there's no harm trying to email your dream mentor, consider actively following a few of your favorite people on Twitter as they post their business experiences. Spend time sharing and commenting on what they have to say, and it could be the start of a beautiful virtual mentorship.
2. They Can't Dump You
Ask any successful business person about how many mentorship requests they've received and more than likely, the answer will be "too many." In Sheryl Sandberg's much-discussed book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she equates searching for a mentor as "the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming." If you're lucky enough to find that prince, he might be too busy for you, or worse yet, he won't live up to your expectations. On Twitter, the relationship is much less complicated. If you're ready to move on to someone else, there are no hard feelings. In other words, you can be a little more promiscuous with your mentor love.
3. They Can't Ignore You
Yes, virtual mentors can still ignore you, but if you put in enough time tweeting with them and helping them to reach their business goals (which for many on Twitter means building their brand), they'll have a tougher time. Part of the issue with the mentorship relationship is that it's often one-sided. If you have the patience to nurture a digital relationship you'll be much more likely to get their attention, and possibly, earn their trust if you get the chance to meet face-to-face. "Twitter has been incredibly helpful in fostering virtual mentors for me," says Whaling. "I met Todd Defren, principal at SHIFT Communications, through Twitter as well. A year or so later, he and I were on a panel together. Even though we’d just met in person for the first time, he gave me incredibly valuable advice, which I am convinced helped me grow my company."
Is the face-to-face mentorship dead? Probably not, but in today's digital world the mentorship opportunity is moving from the physical space to the virtual space, one strategic tweet at a time.
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[Image: Flickr user Travis Johnson]