Mentoring goes online

January 7, 2009, 11:05 PM UTC

So it’s a new year, and in the interest of all of us getting/staying employed in 2009, I thought I’d share some news about a recent beta launch that promises to help. It’s called Gotta Mentor, and yes, it is a social networking tool of sorts. Given my very public paranoia about how hokily-titled networking sites are diluting our real connections, you can imagine my skepticism. But where Facebook and MySpace are more or less for keeping up with friends, and LinkedIn is a sort of professional contacts list, Gotta Mentor is about engaging a small group of individuals who are focused exclusively on assisting you in developing your career, according to president and co-founder Ronald Mitchell.

Technology’s already been at work in the mentoring world, but as any mentee who’s suffered through a chemistry-free mentoring lunch can tell you, it’s mostly been to create huge databases of random facts that are about as good for matching people as personals ads. And that tends to make structured mentoring programs hugely unsatisfying. So it’s no surprise that the question Mitchell gets most is, “Why would people want to mentor?”

“The answer is simple,” he says. “Most people already do mentor. We believe that people want to give guidance and support to others. They just don’t want to give it to everyone. They want to invest their time in people they have an affinity with.” So in addition to facilitating mentoring relationships for people who already know each other, Gotta Mentor’s MentorMatch makes it easy to find a match based on what you already share—whether it’s family, college, a sorority, a sport, ethnicity, gender, employer, or all of the above.

Professionals from finance, consulting, marketing, education and other areas are already signed up, along with students from such schools as Yale, Harvard Business School, and the University of Pennsylvania. (The service is open to people at all levels, though.) And while their common experiences are great for engagement, Gotta Mentor doesn’t rely on that alone. In addition to resources such as personalized career coaching and searchable career development advice, Gotta Mentor formalizes its mentoring relationships: Mentors agree to a timeline, and advisees must share their career goals and expectations just to be connected. “We would rather you engage five people more substantively around your career than connect to 500,” Mitchell says.

To be frank, I’ll have to see it to believe it. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t state the obvious: The best mentors are the people who teach you over a lifetime of talking, thinking, and living, not necessarily the ones who give you a killer online resume review. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Gotta Mentor’s brand of career guidance, too, or that relationships built in this sort of online community can’t translate elsewhere.

And streamlining the less organic parts of the mentoring experience certainly has its appeal, especially considering how embarrassing it can be for all parties concerned when someone levels the dreaded, “Will you be my mentor?” So I’m willing to give Gotta Mentor the benefit of the doubt. Because it just might work — and because I learned my lesson a few years ago: I had a similarly suspicious initial reaction to fellow Gotta Mentor co-founder John Rice’s education nonprofit, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, when I wrote about it in 2006. At first look, MLT — which aimed to get more diverse students into top MBA programs and beyond—seemed like yet another well-intentioned, but far too optimistic organization. But by the time I’d finished meeting some of its obsessed staffers, gushing Fortune 500 sponsors, and actual students who were now headed to Top 10 schools — it was clear Rice had proved me wrong. Just in case he’s done it again, give Gotta Mentor a look — and as always, let us know what you think.