If you're planning to enroll in an online MBA program, you may be worried about your support system. While the majority of traditional campus programs have solid mentorship systems in place for university students to turn to, often as part of their student services center or office, online programs are a bit different.
Before you begin your search, you might want to consider doing some preventative organization. Set up folders and files on your main laptop, email account, and phone so you can keep track of your progress and easily locate a website, person, or organization you find during your search. Put comments within phone contacts, bookmark websites into a bookmarks folder, and start a document in MS Word or a similar word processor so you can keep track of info, questions you think of, interests or activities you have in common, and make notes on what you did or didn't like about each possible mentor you locate or meet with as the case may be.
You should understand that not every possible mentor will, be they academic or faculty or at the top of your own company, have an open door policy or be interested in devoting the time required to assist in your career's development. However, to find online mentors you should concentrate on three areas: online tools and technology to facilitate your search, effectively communicating with prospective mentors, and curating your online persona to highlight your talents, goals, and abilities while minimizing your flaws. Here's a look at each of these three areas:
Finding Mentors through Online Tools
If you're already working in a professional environment, then you're aware that it's not just what you know but also who you know that's important in the business world. Networking is a vital part of succeeding, and every year spent in a business college earning your MBA is a perfect opportunity to connect with other professionals in your community who may become an integral part of your business career both during and after your studies. Keep this in mind while conducting your online search for a mentor and build a full contact record of each person you connect with, even if they're not suitable as a mentor. Here are some online tools and sources you can use to begin your search for your MBA mentor:
- LinkedIn: The best known platform for making business connections online, LinkedIn has over 500 million members worldwide. Make sure your profile is as complete as possible, including education and volunteering details as well as you work experience. If you have leadership experience and other accomplishments make sure they're included, too. Look for people and groups within your career field, alumni groups, and professional organizations as well as those specific to mentoring MBA students, and read each profile before making the connection rather than sending random connection requests. You want to connect with people who share an interest or experiences with you, could help you develop a strategic skill, or can share understanding or insights you're looking for (such as other women in business). It's a good idea to update your connections and profile once every month or two to make the best use of this networking tool.
- School Resources: Most online schools understand the importance of mentorship and have resources available for their students. Check with your professors and guidance counselors as well as the school directory for tips on finding an MBA mentor. You may find a great one among your school staff (one of the benefits of a brick-and-mortar institution) or within your corporate structure who you've worked with already. Many larger online schools have databases and specific search tools for matching mentors with students, so make sure you continue to check the school resource links page for other sources affiliated with the school.
- Alumni Groups: Most schools have alumni groups and mentorship is often a key component for members. Many successful business owners and CEO's make a point of giving back to their alma mater, so don't disregard these groups just because you haven't graduated yet. They may be vital to you finding or choosing a mentor. In addition to the school you attend today, remember to check the school or schools where you earned your undergraduate degree as well as social media pages of these organizations.
- Professional Associations: An MBA covers a lot of subjects (analytics, finance, etc.) and you're most likely already aware of or employed in your field of choice. It's an excellent idea to join as many professional associations as possible. Groups such as the American Management Association (AMA) and Business Network International (BNI) often have mentorship programs for members and also offer seminars, conferences, and similar professional meetings where you can meet in real life to network and find mentors.
- Business Organizations: If you're like most online MBA learners, you're already employed in the field of business. Look within your own company for mentor connections, as well as county and state organizations that are connected to your field. For example, if your dream is to run your own business you can find mentorship with the Small Business Association based in your city or county. If your goal is to move up the chain of command with your current employer, check with those in management for mentoring opportunities.
Communicating with Potential Mentors
Once you've identified a possible mentor, you shouldn't jump right in and ask them to fulfill the role. Check out their business, biography, and website to make sure they appear to be a good fit for a mentor. With an online mentor, you'll most likely be communication via email or messaging, so make sure you keep all communications professional and error free. Before you approach your future mentor you should have a clear idea of what you want from the relationship, so you should write an outline or list of expectations you would like to gain from the communication. Although each situation will be different, here's an idea of what your outline might include:
- How often you will communicate, such as one or two hours a month - consider setting a schedule
- Have an agenda in place before each meeting so you don't just end up swapping stories
- Set realistic expectations for the relationship
- Communicate expectations from each party
- Define what you would like to gain from a mentor or at least what is high on your list
- Identify specific areas and topics the mentor might help with, such as negotiating strategy
In addition, you should make a commitment to yourself to make the most of the mentorship offered:
- Accept feedback
- Learn about industry history, jobs, and career paths your mentor might suggest
- Explore the opportunities and advice your mentor offers
- Understand they are only human and can't read your mind
Because messaging and emailing is so quick and efficient we often do it while multitasking. This makes our communication prone to errors and typos, and that's the last thing you want to present to a prospective mentor. You should always be clear and concise in order to appear businesslike and professional. Pay attention to details and always proofread emails that are going out to a possible business connection before you hit the "send" button.
Make your subject line effective, such as using a call-to-action format so it has a better chance of being opened upon receipt. In addition, you should maximize your email signature to include all your contact information as well as your LinkedIn profile link, social media information, and website if applicable. This will make it easier for your mentor candidate to examine your personal information and decide if you are a person they might enjoy mentoring. If you have current accomplishments or job positions you feel would be beneficial to your mentor's decision you can add them in your signature line as well.
Above all, when contacting possible mentors make sure you are always businesslike in your communication. Do not use slang terms or trendy words and phrases and always be businesslike. It's an excellent idea to use a business letter format as a template for your initial email contact as it shows you're serious about your MBA needs.
Curating Your Online Persona
While keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date with your latest accomplishments is vital to your business persona, other areas of social media can be just as important. It's a good idea to Google yourself every few months and check what pops up, because your future mentor is most likely going to do just that. If you see an unflattering Facebook photo from that party you went to last summer you can go to the page and untag yourself.
Check your social media posts for content that might be considered offensive. If you find more than one or two posts that might be considered controversial, you might want to change your privacy settings so you don't offend a prospective mentor.
You should have a Twitter account and use it effectively. Make regular tweets about your industry and events that might affect your field, follow individuals and companies that are interesting and connected to your business or education, and use hashtags that are industry-specific. On Twitter and other social media sites you can post links to articles that are pertinent to developments in your industry, and sharing posts and articles written by your LinkedIn connections can be an excellent way to nurture career connections and possible mentor relationships.
If your name isn't too common you can sign up for Google Alerts and receive notification whenever your name pops up online. That way you can be aware of any negative information that your prospective mentor might see when they search your name. If something negative pops up in your email alert you can take immediate steps to delete it, and if the alert is positive you can share it to advance your career.
If there are still negative results on the first page of Google, go back to your LinkedIn profile with positive promotion in mind. Add a professional photograph and some long-form articles that reflect your writing ability and they will soon land on that first page of Google that is often examined by mentors and future employers.