Mentors, who have their feet firmly planted in industry, can provide practical advice that supplements what MBA students are learning in business school. But the mentorship relationship can get controversial and more complicated when it comes to online MBA students, some experts say.
Some MBA faculty and students view digital mentors almost like invisible friends, which are unlikely to yield fruitful interactions, while others notice unique opportunities when mentors communicate with business students online.
"In today's world, mentoring takes many forms through a variety of channels. Yes, there is still the traditional sit-down with your mentor for a weekly or monthly chat, but increasingly telephone, E-mail, social media, limited group blogs, and even public blogs are playing a role," says Robert Mittelstaedt, the dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, which offers an online Professional MBA program.
Students can learn more efficiently from following their mentors' professional online presences than from traditional face-to-face meetings, says Mittelstaedt, who notes that reluctant students may feel more comfortable asking mentors for advice digitally than they would in person.
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Interacting with mentors online can be convenient for b-school students, according to Aneil Mishra, a professor at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor Ross School of Business and managing partner of a coaching and consulting business.
Digital communication tools, particularly LinkedIn, help Mishra stay in touch with the many students from overseas that he coaches, he says, but he recommends a hybrid approach, where there is some face-to-face interaction for trust building amid the communication via social media and digital tools. Sometimes, that may mean making more of an effort to go to events or to network in person in other ways.
"If you're attending a pure online degree [program] or have limited face-to-face connections with your peers and professors, it's more beholden to you to join professional associations," he says.
Melissa Junge, an MBA student at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California, also has doubts about the efficacy of mentorship if there's not at least some in-person communication.
Junge, who wants to work in marketing after she graduates, chose to pursue several women outside her program as mentors based on their expertise in her chosen field. When she needed to enlist speakers for a conference about women in business, for example, she sought advice from her mentors about how to convince experts to sign up without being able to offer them speaking fees.
Although she notes that the best mentors often can't meet in person, Junge tries to coordinate her schedule to allow her to go to conferences or panels that will not only be useful, but where she also knows her mentors are speaking. "It's kind of hitting two birds with one stone," she says.
[Learn how and why to find a mentor.]
Although she is convinced the best mentors are often too busy for anything but a digital relationship, Junge says it's important to avoid getting "lost in that digital communication."
"I would think that would be not impossible, but it would be much, much harder to try and establish that relationship digitally without meeting in person first," she says. "Otherwise, there's no memorable thing there that the mentor is going to remember and then take the time to say, 'OK. Well let me help you with something.'"
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