The Art and Science of Leading an Online Mentoring Group

Written by
Chris Browning

Finding the Right Balance in Group Mentoring

No two mentoring relationships are the same. From traditional mentoring to reverse mentoring to group mentoring, the interactions and outcomes can vary based on the people involved, the goals they want to achieve, and the overall structure of the relationship.

Mentoring groups are a unique take on the traditional view of mentoring; instead of just one mentee working with one mentor, a group can have several mentees working with one or two mentors (or any variation of this). These group leaders are typically the mentors who are the experts on whatever topic the group is meeting to discuss (although sometimes these groups might be led and facilitated by mentoring program administrators). Without the dedication and clear vision of these mentors and leaders, mentoring groups can flounder.

Art and Science of Mentoring GroupsEffectively leading an online mentoring group is part art and part science. There is both a structural component (science) and a feel (art) that contributes to creating the optimal environment for learning to take place among group participants. A balance needs to be struck between these scientific and artistic components to help ensure that there is a learning focus that drives the conversation and engages the participants. Too little structure can quickly lead to participants concluding that the group lacks focus and value. Too many heavy-handed demands, and participants may feel like they’re back in school.

Every group leader needs to be able to identify an approach and style that will work for them and the participants. While there is no one, universal approach that will guarantee success in all instances, here are four tips that group leaders can follow to help ensure the right balance is struck.

1. Create a curriculum and then be willing to adjust it.

While you don’t want to create a college-like reading list of several hundred pages a week, having a plan for some resources that you would like participants to review and thought-provoking questions that can be posed as conversation starters is a good way to get started. (River offers content packages that include our popular newsletters and brief videos that can be used within mentoring groups to spark conversation and learning. Contact us to learn more.)

My advice is to put together a preliminary plan for posting a new resource and/or question every week. For example, in week 1, post a classic whitepaper about the topic at hand, with a question or two for people to respond to after reviewing it. Then, in week 2, post a recent article on a related topic and challenge participants to come up with at least one action for how they are going to implement a change in the way they do things. This is the science part.

Then, based on how the conversation goes and how engaged the participants are, be willing to modify your curriculum to fit the needs of the group. This is the art component. In fact, if you do a good job modeling how to start a conversation and encourage participants to bring their own resources and questions, you may find that participants will take a more active role in uncovering additional topics for discussion. If this happens, consider it a success—it means that you did a great job of getting your group to take ownership for their own learning.

2. Bring some normalcy to the equation.

The leader of an online mentoring group assumes some responsibility for starting and maintaining the conversation and learning that occurs via the mentoring software. As mentioned above, a little bit of upfront preparation in creating a curriculum can go a long way, but a curriculum alone won’t guarantee success.

As the leader, it is up to you to set the tone for how the group will communicate. Don’t be afraid to set expectations for your group. In fact, one of the first activities you can engage your group in is the development of and commitment to group norms. When a group agrees on expectations for behavior, the group’s overall engagement and likelihood of abiding by those norms increases. Consider these sample norms to help you get started (and ask the group to contribute their ideas around additional norms):

  • We will treat one another with dignity and respect.
  • We will make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard.
  • We will support our facilitator’s/mentor’s efforts to moderate discussions.
  • We will trust one another and have confidence that issues discussed in confidence will be kept confidential.
  • We will actively participate and share information or knowledge that we possess.
  • We will ask questions when something is unclear.
  • We will practice humility and understand that each of us may not have all the answers.
  • We will follow through on our commitments and be accountable to the rest of the group.
  • We will avoid humor, language, and imagery that might be offensive to others.

By setting the group norms early, you can establish the right mindset with your mentees and focus your time on guiding their growth and learning.

Group Mentoring3. Pay attention to the psyche.

We have all been in situations where we have been recognized for making a positive contribution, and we have likely also felt what it is like to have our input largely ignored. Which one of those situations feels better and would increase the likelihood that we stay engaged and contribute more in the future?

Obviously, that is a rhetorical question, but it is surprising how quickly we can forget to pay attention to the need for recognition and encouragement among group members. Even the most confident of group participants will feel bolstered by praise and kind words provided by another participant.

It is the hope of every group leader that their group will intuitively understand the value of positive reinforcement and take it upon themselves to provide such kudos. However, sometimes the group leader needs to model this behavior before it becomes the norm. This is another instance where a balance needs to be struck. It is not recommended that you provide effusive praise for every contribution made, because doing so will likely come across as disingenuous. Instead, be selective and highlight those contributions that truly add to the quality of the discussion, so that praise does not lose its value by becoming watered down. When done well, most groups will adopt the style set by the leader and begin to positively recognize one another as well.

Be back soon4. Don’t be an absentee landlord.

As the mentoring group leader, it is important that you monitor the conversation. To be clear, monitoring doesn’t normally mean policing (unless you have unruly participants who need to be reminded of appropriateness and proper etiquette). Rather, it means paying a little bit of attention to make sure the conversation continues to flow. For example, if a group participant asks a good question that nobody is answering, a quick prompt to encourage others to answer, or even an initial response from you that is concluded with a “What does everyone else think?” follow-on question, could be enough to get the conversation going.

If you find that the conversation is waning, lean on the curriculum that you established at the onset. If you need to use some of the resources that you identified sooner than you originally thought to get the conversation moving, don’t be afraid to do so, assuming that doing so does not negatively impact the bigger picture of what you are trying to accomplish with the group.

You should make it a point to check in with the group with regularity. Many leaders create a routine to log in once a day for 5-10 minutes to quickly check and see if anything needs to be addressed (e.g., as a “first thing in the morning” type of activity). This mild rigor (science) can assist you in being more artful in responding to what you see. It also ensures that the group doesn’t become disengaged through lack of interaction and activity.

It’s important that you recognize that leading online mentoring groups takes a bit of both art and science. It’s also important that you find your own balance of art and science that fits the group’s dynamic. This approach will help to ensure that participants emerge from the group experience with new understandings that will positively impact them both personally and professionally. And your job as a group leader will be successfully completed.

Ready to get started? Get tips on designing a mentoring program from River.

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