The Value of Virtual Mentorships

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Monday, February 21, 2022
By Marco De Novellis
Photo by iStock/triloks
The qualities of good mentorships are the same whether online or in person, but virtual mentorships offer unique advantages.
  • By offering virtual mentorships, business schools can broaden their mentor pools while simultaneously increasing their alumni engagement.
  • As with any mentorship program, participants should establish boundaries and expectations for engagement; in a virtual program, participants must adapt these guidelines for an online setting.
  • Technology can enhance virtual mentorships through mentor-mentee matching capabilities, innovative communication platforms, and participant profile management.

Business schools are increasingly launching virtual mentorship programs that provide students with access to expertise and guidance from global networks of professors, industry experts, and alumni. By removing geographic boundaries, virtual mentorships expand the diversity of mentor backgrounds and experiences, increasing students’ chances of finding a good match.

Mentors and mentees have greater flexibility in virtual settings, and with this flexibility comes changes to the mentor-mentee relationship. App-based matching systems allow a more personalized approach to connecting as well as an on-demand network for students to tap into in times of need.

To excel at virtual mentorships, schools must understand the characteristics of a good mentorship program and how to adapt it for a virtual environment.

What Makes a Good Virtual Mentorship?

Mentorship schemes have been shown to boost organizational culture; improve employee engagement; and make participants more empowered, confident, and likely to advance in their careers.

Both online and offline, the key tenets of good mentorship are the same:

  • Matching. Students should be matched with a mentor whose background and experience are aligned with their own key objectives and career goals. Similar personalities and shared characteristics (like age, languages, education) can help facilitate a good match.
  • Establishing Expectations. What are the mentee and the mentor looking for from the relationship? To make the most out of the mentorship experience, understanding mutual expectations is key.
  • Preparation. Mentees should be prepared to come to each meeting with ideas and questions. Similarly, mentors should have an agenda in mind to keep discussions focused and on track.
  • Clear Outcomes. After each session, mentors should provide mentees with a list of actions and set a time frame for implementation and a follow-up meeting to monitor progress.

In a purely online mentorship program, however, participants should be especially conscious of their virtual environment and how they interact.

Celia Pearce, alumni communications executive at Imperial College Business School, suggests that participants agree to a code of conduct for virtual meetings in advance, outlining expectations and boundaries for working together.

“It can be harder to build rapport virtually, so participants should take some time to get to know a bit more about each other at the start. It’s important to focus; switch off email notifications, find a quiet space to have the meeting, be present, and listen.”

How Business Schools Are Adapting Their Mentorship Models

With the onset of the pandemic, Imperial College Business School extended its alumni mentoring scheme to all of its master’s programs and started recruiting more alumni volunteers from outside the U.K. to pair with current students.

Students and alumni aim to have at least one virtual catch-up per semester as well as regular email conversations, focusing largely on job interview practice and career advice. While previous “buddy schemes” at Imperial attracted around 20-25 alumni volunteers, the virtual scheme has attracted more than 80.

In early 2021, Imperial also invested in a networking app for its alumni and student community. The app connects alumni and students, with alumni able to update their profile with the level of support they are able to provide. Additionally, with a group chat capability, students with quick career-related questions can receive instant ad-hoc advice from anyone in the alumni community.

“The chance to connect directly enables users to foster a more structured mentoring relationship, and users are also able to create industry/career-specific groups for networking and professional development support as well as posting job openings,” says Ruairi McEvoy, alumni relations volunteering executive at Imperial.

Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management launched its virtual mentorship program in 2020 and has also seen an increase in the number of alumni taking part. For Linda Feeney, director of Kellogg Alumni Engagement, COVID presented an opportunity for the school to identify and maximize ways for students and alumni to connect virtually.

Using Kellogg’s virtual mentorship platform, alumni and students set up profiles and then students receive three suggested matches. The students can reach out to one of the suggested alumni or search for anyone else on the platform by company or industry.

The mentor relationship is set up for 12 weeks, and the goal for the student and alum is to focus on a specific challenge or opportunity. “This model takes into consideration that different mentors are helpful with different issues, and a student could potentially have four different Kellogg-facilitated mentors in a year,” Feeney explains.

The online platform also provides Kellogg with data. Facilitators can review the industries and geographies of alumni that are most popular with students, so they can continue to reach out and recruit the right mentors.

The on-demand nature of virtual mentorship is especially useful for aspiring student entrepreneurs, says Jane Khedair, director of the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital at London Business School (LBS), which has run its Entrepreneur Mentor in Residence program virtually since 2019.

Using a virtual platform, mentors, business owners, experts, and successful entrepreneurs are connected directly with students on a “by request” basis. The mentors then arrange the sessions using whatever communication platform they prefer and at a time and day to suit their availability.

3 Tips for Setting Up a Virtual Mentorship Program

When setting up a virtual mentorship scheme, business school staff should follow these top tips from fellow professionals:

1. Involve Your Mentors and Mentees

For a successful mentorship model, Amir Michael, associate dean of the MBA at Durham University Business School in the U.K., says schools should provide students with ownership of the mentorship process.

“A successful mentorship is significantly dependent on the students’ engagement in the process and with their mentors, so they need to be given some level of flexibility to manage the process in a way that is beneficial to them in terms of content and timing of engagement with mentors,” he says.

Indeed, the needs and wants of the consumer should be a key focus of any design project. When developing the virtual mentorship program at Kellogg, Feeney says the school pivoted to the 12-week format after feedback from students.

“We wanted to treat the platform as a resource to make connections and then have the mentors and mentees drive their relationships.”

2. Provide Incentives for Mentors

Mentors typically dedicate their time on a pro bono basis, so keeping your network of mentors happy is important. Khedair from LBS suggests maintaining contact on a regular basis and bringing the mentor group together at least once a year to help them get to know each other and feel part of a valued community.

“A face-to-face lunch or dinner with each mentor goes a long way in expressing gratitude but also to build trust,” she adds.

Where relevant, Khedair also advises making mentors feel extra secure by protecting them and the organization they’re mentoring on behalf of. “Do this by way of a clear and professionally drafted disclaimer to avoid any liability for guidance provided.”

3. Make Use of Available Technology

A good virtual mentorship scheme must be backed up by strong technology platforms and infrastructure, but schools should also make the best use of the technology available to them.

In a virtual environment, for example, you can quickly update and modify program features and communications, like training and resource documents, to better serve mentors and mentees.

Khedair advises schools to create digital brochures that profile mentors—detailing their backgrounds, specialization areas, and contact details—so mentees can connect with them directly to arrange a session. “Share the brochure not just among mentees but also among the mentors to encourage cross-fertilization and referrals among the group,” she says.

Pearce from Imperial suggests making the mentor registration process detailed enough to ensure that only interested people who are most likely to engage in the program apply.

“This also helps in finding the best match for each person,” she says. “If you are selecting the [mentorship] pairs, try to standardize the registration form if possible. This means drop-down lists and tick boxes rather than free-form answers to a survey.”

Mentorship, says Pearce, isn't about telling people what to do; it’s about giving people time and space to help them work out how to solve things themselves.

By taking mentorship into the virtual world, business schools can ensure that their communities are strengthened and engaged, and that students put their best foot forward into a global career.

Marco De Novellis
Senior Editor, BusinessBecause & GMAC Media
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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