Long-Distance Mentoring

Make the most of mentoring when you can't meet in person.

Larry Ambrose

Do you have to be face-to-face to have a good mentoring relationship? One might think so. But the fact is, it's not always possible. These days, healthcare organizations are characterized by multiple locations, sometimes widely dispersed. Consequently, the right mentor for a person at a particular stage in his or her career may not necessarily be located nearby. If mentoring is to continue as a viable resource for those in healthcare management, matching mentoring pairs across locations should be an option. That being said, with a little preparation and guidance, a long-distance mentoring relationship can work, and work well.

Linking Up

Whether you are a mentor or a protege, as you begin any mentoring relationship, understand that the planning and preparation you and your mentoring partner carry out is crucial to its success. Setting up a strong distance relationship begins at your first meeting. Ideally, this "link-up meeting" should be held face-to-face, if possible. Meeting in person helps you get to know each other more quickly and accelerates trust building that will serve you well as you work in separate locations. If meeting in person is not possible, your first meeting can be conducted by telephone following some guidelines. During this link-up meeting, the protege should discuss his or her learning goals and areas for development, and both partners should talk about their expectations for the relationship and each other.

Preparing for the Meeting

In a long-distance mentoring relationship, most of your conversations will take place via telephone. To make the most of these conversations, both the mentor and protege should be prepared. Before the first phone meeting, the mentor should review the protege's learning goals established in the link-up meeting. Also, time expectations and the meeting agenda should be set. This information can be communicated through e-mail or fax. One of the key agenda items for the first meeting is for the mentoring partners to work together to plan the protege's activities for the first two months. These activities should help the protege achieve his or her goals.

Running a Phone Meeting

To run a productive phone meeting, a clear structure for beginning the mentoring session and for following through on each agenda item is necessary. Following is an example of how a phone meeting might proceed.

1. To kick off phone session, the mentor must review the protege's last assignment or planned activity. What did they protege accomplish? Is there something new that the protege tried that was successful? What challenges did the protege overcome and what challenges are still to be met? What did the protege learn about him/herself?

2. Next, the mentor and protege together should review what the protege has learned from activities since the last meeting. What actions worked well? What changes would the protege make in the future? How can the mentor help?

3. Finally, the partners should plan activities to complete before the next meeting. The protege is responsible for identifying the next learning opportunity, and together the mentoring partners should decide on an appropriate activity or assignment. Before the meeting has ended, the partners should also decide on a date when the protege must provide an update on the assignment.

Using E-mail Effectively

While sending e-mail may be quick and easy, it shouldn't be the main form of communication in a mentoring relationship. E-mail is best for:

  • Suggesting or requesting meetings with your partner
  • Scheduling meetings and verifying plans
  • Posing non time-urgent questions to the mentor
  • Reviewing conclusions drawn from experience if writing is the best way to address a particular issue
  • Maintaining a sense of contact when one or both partners are finding it difficult to schedule mutual time

E-mail is not appropriate for:

  • Giving critical feedback
  • Exchanging impressions on sensitive issues
  • Communicating an issue that can be "read" in more ways than one. Feelings can be hurt without in-the-moment response and resolution.
  • Giving impressions of each other's behavior or discussing the behavior of or impressions about a third party

The Communication Challenge

While the content of a distance mentoring meeting and a face-to-face meeting are the same, distance mentoring presents a special challenge, complicated by the inability of the partners to observe each other's reactions. Nonverbal cues will be much less obvious; careful listening to tone and volume of voice is crucial. With conscious effort, mentoring partners can develop the ability to understand the subtle signs of feelings, as well as more objective data.

Gaining a sense of the protege's underlying feelings over the phone is a unique challenge for the mentor. It is equally difficult for the protege to discern a mentor's empathy. Therefore, both partners must take care to verbally signal their understanding of what the other is communicating. Acknowledging an understanding of the person's message by nodding just won't do.

Following are some communication hints for both mentors and proteges:

Listen for nonverbals. Sometimes you can tell how people feel not by what they say but how they say it. Keep your ear tuned for a rising or lowering of voice; a change in tone; silence; a quickening or slowing of speaking pace; sighs, pauses, and similar expressions.

Describe behavior. Tell your partner what you are "hearing" or "sensing" in that person's expression. Check on feelings by asking your partner how he or she feels about a certain issue.

Push for specifics. Ask that your partner express thoughts and opinions clearly and with focus.

Summarize agreements. Don't let the meeting close without summarizing what you feel has been agreed to, testing the accuracy of your perception.

Distance mentoring will succeed as mentors and proteges think through what they want from a mentoring partnership and use some commonsense guidelines to manage the relationship. Every new distance mentoring pair that is successful adds immeasurably to the organization's ability to satisfy the mentoring needs of all.

Larry Ambrose is a managing partner of Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc., and the author of A Mentor's Companion.

Perrone-Ambrose Associates, Inc.
2 N. Riverside Plaza, Ste. 1433
Chicago, IL 60606
(800) 648-0543

From Healthcare Executive, March/April 2003