Virtual Mentors and Professional Development

By Ben Henderson September 18, 2017

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Finding a mentor who has the right combination of experience and insight has always been a great way to gain inside knowledge on a particular industry area. Before the internet age, you would be lucky to find such an individual who would be willing to give up their free time and help you develop on a professional level. You may have been fortunate enough to work with someone like this and realized that an effective mentor can really help you see an industry from a different perspective, as well as provide some unique and effective recommendations on how to improve. With the rise of the modern day virtual mentor, professionals now have a myriad of choices in any particular sector and can gain that inside knowledge when they need it.

The term virtual mentor was initially used to describe an industry specialist willing to share knowledge outside the traditional face-to-face environment.  Normally, this would be done via familiar web conferencing tools such as Skype, text messaging, emails or even over the phone.  This would become an effective way for a mentor to provide ongoing support to a professional regardless of time and space.  Furthermore, these virtual meetings would arguably be more valuable to an individual as there was not as much room for social cues which could potentially hinder face-to-face meetings.   However, some professionals still like building relationships with their mentors outside the confines of the virtual world and could feel that building trust and a professional bond is more difficult virtually.  Alongside this, it could be argued that it is easier to leave a virtual mentor relationship when there is no more to learn or gain. Do you have any experience of this? Is this a bad thing?

Rather than relying on one particular individual to provide answers to everything, professionals are now taking to the influx of virtual mentors available through social media channels, in particular through YouTube. Though these individuals seldom claim to be mentors, they are acting out the role in a way which suits professionals who are craving a particular insight.  Industry experts such as Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins and  Simon Sinek (along with many others), are giving individuals unique professional development opportunities in a convenient and engaging way.  Topics such as how to start a business, build marketing campaigns, develop social media channels and career progression, as well as a myriad of other topics, are all discussed through YouTube channels and other social media outlets.  Though they may not claim to be mentors in the formal sense, these experts do fulfill their role by interacting with their community and providing answers to a range of questions. In particular, Gary Vaynerchuk has developed a close relationship with his followers by actively responding to comments on a daily basis through his multiple online accounts.  This reinforces the idea that learning within a community of practice is a valuable and worthwhile experience.

As professional development opportunities continue to increase through digital avenues, virtual mentors could become a regular part of an individual’s continuing professional development program. Switching between multiple virtual mentors certainly has its benefits, mostly around the ability to receive a lot of expert information in a convenient and digestible way. However, professionals should realize that the information exchange may only be in one direction, and relationships with these mentors probably won’t ever develop. Rather than personalized advice based on your unique set of circumstances, the information accessed through virtual mentors may be generalized to a wider demographic.

Even so, as the information is mostly coming from industry experts, it could be far more beneficial than waiting for someone in your organization to step up and fulfill the role.  As a professional you know what works for you, and a traditional hands-on mentor might be exactly what you need to help support your development. However, with so many smart and insightful personalities willing to share their experiences and knowledge online, it could be worth investing time in a virtual mentor, or even a group of them.    

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