The new networking

from The Globe & Mail

When the bell rings, dozens of strangers pair off and size each other up.

They shake hands and start talking about life goals, past experiences and future dreams.

Some feel a spark, while others suffer through awkward silences. A few minutes later, the bell clangs again and they move on to the next potentially life-changing stranger.

Speed dating? That’s so 2003.

This is speed mentoring, the new way to jump-start your destiny.

The goal is career-building, not courtship, but the underlying philosophy remains the same: Rather than waste hours with a mentor who’s just not that into you, spend a few minutes with a variety of people in hopes of finding that special someone who truly understands your career aspirations.

If you’re lucky, you’ll score business cards, and maybe even some wisdom to live by.

“At first I was nervous, but they were all such nice people,” said Tamara Gordon, a 22-year-old business student at Toronto’s York University who participated in a speed mentoring session last week with prominent York alumni. An aspiring law student who uses a wheelchair, Ms. Gordon felt a definite connection during her five minutes with Lincoln Alexander, the first black lieutenant-governor of Ontario, who also uses a wheelchair.

“He looked at me and just told me, ‘Don’t let being in a wheelchair stop you from pursuing anything. You can achieve anything.’ I thought that was awesome,” Ms. Gordon said. From other mentors she received practical advice on applying to law school, making the most of her university experience, and whether to take a gap year after she graduates.

In a time when mentoring “has never been more needed, and people have never been busier,” said Alan Kearns, founder of CareerJoy, a coaching firm with offices in Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto, speed mentoring could be the answer.

And it is taking off in professional circles around the world.

Organizations ranging from IBM to the Advertising Club of Edmonton have embraced the speed mentoring model. Structured quickie mentoring is popping up at conferences for all types of industries. And ACCES Employment Services, a Toronto-area agency, holds regular speed mentoring sessions to help new Canadian immigrants build professional networks, 10 minutes at a time.

“It is really giving people inside information on what the workplace is like and what they’re looking for,” said ACCES executive director Allison Pond. Since they started speed mentoring a year ago, she said, they’ve matched 600 new immigrants with mentors from 24 Canadian firms. The sessions have led to several job offers, Ms. Pond said, and many of the mentors join long-term programs after getting a taste of it.

“Relationships do form, and our clients find it really, really helpful,” Ms. Pond said.

The trend makes sense to aspiring entrepreneur U.J. Ramdan, 20, who chatted with media executives, a film festival organizer, a prominent lawyer, a Cirque du Soleil choreographer and a number of high-profile business people at York’s recent event.

“In five minutes, you kind of come to the conclusion of whether you want to see the person again, and you can very quickly tell if it’s mutual,” said Mr. Ramdan, a business student who collected phone numbers from everyone he met.

Speed mentoring represents a formalization of the casual networking that happens naturally at any sort of professional conference, according to Mr. Kearns.

What you get out of any mentoring relationship depends on what you put into it, and that’s true of the speedy version, too. Leigh Sayer, a 30-year-old education student at York, came to the event armed with questions on index cards. Before the first bell rang, she scouted the tables to figure out who she had been matched with so she could tailor her questions more precisely.

At first, she was inclined to view speed mentoring as a not-entirely-healthy symptom of our accelerated, instant-messaging, fast-food culture. But afterward, she was a convert.

“I’d rather have five years with each mentor, but five minutes was better than no time at all,” she said. “I learned so much.”

And those index cards came in handy when one mentor, Ontario Science Centre chief executive officer Lesley Lewis, said something she liked so much she had to write it down.

“She said, ‘The purpose of life is a life with purpose,’ ” Ms. Sayer said. “That hit me, for sure.”

Make it work

Whether they share a five-minute session or a 10-year relationship, mentors and their protégés can follow these steps to make the most of their time together.

Tips for mentors

Make time: Even if it’s five minutes, your guidance can mean a lot to someone. And don’t cancel unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Set boundaries: Do you want protégés to e-mail you, talk to your assistant or call you on your cellphone? Let them know.

Be an active listener: Don’t dominate the conversation;

Remember mentoring is a two-way street.

Take the initiative: Help your protégé set goals; assign homework if appropriate.

Tips for protégés

Find the right fit: As with dating, you’ve got to have chemistry.

Don’t be a stalker: Do you want to talk to your mentor once a month or once a week? Discuss expectations up front to avoid disappointment.

Ask for advice, not favours: Your mentor can suggest good ways to break into a new industry, but don’t expect him or her to pull strings and deliver résumés for you.

Give back: Your mentor should get something out of the relationship, too, even if it’s just a fresh perspective.