The New Rules of Mentoring

By Wendy Murphy

In the past two decades, professional careers have shifted from linear and stable to boundary-less and unpredictable. Technology also is affecting everyone’s careers, with the rapid pace of change requiring workers to have the flexibility to adapt and learn quickly.

In this environment, negotiating transitions is an essential career skill, and workers must create stability and certainty for themselves.

Relationships are one of the most valuable resources for career development, and mentors are a key source of stability in assisting individuals to successfully adapt to career challenges. This is reflected in research on mentoring, which consistently demonstrates that protégés have higher salaries, are promoted faster, and are more satisfied with their careers. Relationships with mentors are especially crucial in the turbulent, changing career environment of the 21st century. As electronic media are increasingly used in both personal (e.g., Facebook) and professional (e.g., LinkedIn) contexts, young professionals can benefit greatly from knowing how to develop rapport online. Below, we look at why and how to do just that.

We begin by describing why the concept of mentoring is changing in practice and in research. Then, we highlight five actions for aspiring protégés and mentors to consider in order to initiate and sustain e-mentoring relationships in an increasingly uncertain world.

From One to Many Mentors: Why the Concept of Mentoring Is Changing

Research on mentoring in the field of management has been concentrated in the area of careers, a person’s emerging set of work experiences. In the past decade, theories of careers have shifted from that of organizational man, a traditional linear job path within one organization, to that of the boundary-less and protean career models, which emphasize personal growth and development across multiple positions. Career models have shifted as organizations have changed to flatter structures with more team-based and independent work, where the potential to advance up status hierarchies might not exist, and individuals no longer expect to have a lifelong career in one organization.

In these new careers, a focus on the self-directed career managed by the person has replaced traditional formulas for success. Careers are now highly relational and often driven by personal interest and work challenges. Even within traditional careers, the pairing of individual and relational components is critical because a person’s growth and advancement is attributed to both individual competencies and the skill of accessing others.

As career theory has evolved, the thinking around mentoring relationships also has changed simultaneously. Traditionally, the definition of a mentor–protégé relationship is that of a junior person paired with a senior, more experienced colleague within the same organization. Mentors provide both vocational support, including sponsorship, coaching, and providing feedback, and psychosocial support, including serving as a role model, counseling, and friendship.

Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of mentoring for protégés, such as increased promotions, compensation, job satisfaction, self-esteem, and reduced stress, among others. However, with the changing nature of careers, it no longer may be feasible or even desirable to have only one mentor. Today, the underlying structure of mentoring is shifting from one-on-one relationships toward multiple mentors.

Getting Started

Below, I describe five actions that will help protégés and mentors use e-mentoring effectively. Please note that these are not sequential, nor can they be applied all at once. So, individuals should pick and choose the ones that apply to their particular needs and circumstances.

Harness flexibility. E-mentoring expands the opportunities for protégés to develop relationships with mentors who are geographically dispersed, and enables both parties to choose when to interact. This flexibility accommodates busy executives who want to develop and foster such mentoring relationships, but who need to do so across time zones, travel schedules, and with limited time commitments. Electronic communication already is a reality for the personal relationship maintenance of more than 800 million users of Facebook, and recent figures show record traffic for social networking sites, including Twitter and LinkedIn.

Find other ways to connect (when possible). Also important to note is that the results from this study indicate the addition of talking on the phone or meeting face to face was associated with important outcomes for both protégés and mentors. Studies show that individuals create and maintain online relationships in which social support and information exchange takes place, although these relationships might not be as close as face-to-face relationships (Mesch & Talmud, 2006). Blended communication, the combination of email or social networking with telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings, might be an ideal and realistic way for individuals to create and sustain their developmental networks in the wired 21st century world.

Begin cultivating e-mentors even before entering the workforce. The pairing of students with working professionals provides a forum through which colleges and universities may engage alumni and community leaders. Through the process of e-mentoring, mentors found value in building a one-on-one relationship and reported feeling more connected to the university. Mentors often want to provide support beyond classroom content and engage in conversations about career paths, job searching, and work–life balance. In this way, students gain a better understanding of the current career context and the importance of cultivating a network of developmental support.

Interact regularly. My experience suggests there’s an upside to trying to touch base at least once a month. It doesn’t always have to be a long session—just a “here’s what’s been going on” email, a 15-minute phone call, or quick Skype to check in. Any of these will help keep each party engaged in the process.

Find common ground. Protégés/mentors who feel they are similar to one another receive/provide more support and feel more satisfied. We live in a multimedia world, so use it to find common ground. Even if you are located in different places, if you can connect over the phone, through Skype, or are traveling and can meet face to face, an orienting session where you can get to know each other is really helpful to establish rapport. Even if all your communication thereafter is via email/Facebook that human connection makes all the difference.

One mentor is not enough in today’s career environment. All professionals should create and maintain a developmental network—a set of people at different levels both within and outside of your workplace that assists you in your personal and professional development. E-mentoring is not only a viable tool to help you do this, but it also could be your most effective one.