Mentoring in the Age of Covid-19

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Mickey Mandelbaum, Partner, Prosek Partners 

Of all the havoc the pandemic has brought to the workplace, the one that worries me the most are the lessons and knowledge our younger colleagues are missing in the current work-from-home environment. 

To be clear, I’m not talking about formal teach-ins or other company-wide meetings that can no longer be done in person. In fact, I’m quite proud of how intensely our firm has focused on ensuring that we all “see” each other in the virtual world and remain as connected as we possibly can, and worked to foster a sense of community through the wide variety of programming we’ve put in place. 

What I am talking about are the subtle, spontaneous interactions that happen throughout the day when people work together in a physical office. These are things that aren’t taught in a class or found in a book, but rather only learned while on the job. 

For me, these types of experiences began when I landed my first PR agency job almost 30 years ago. Every day at the office I’d watch how older colleagues courted and worked with clients and how they ran a meeting when trying to form a consensus. I also learned how I should perform when being pulled into a conference room for a client meeting that I did not know about five minutes earlier (the first time didn’t go well), experiencing impromptu hallway conversations about everything and nothing, and observing someone’s body language as they navigated a difficult situation. 

Even my writing—a seemingly solitary act—benefitted from the office setting. Early in my career I, and many others, sat in what we jokingly referred to as the “death chair” to work with a partner who liked to jointly write press releases and other client memos with team members. While seemingly tedious at the time, in hindsight I had a firsthand view of the thinking of one of the best writers at the firm. Countless other times—before the advent of the track change function on computers—I sat across the desk from senior partners who had to explain their indecipherable red scrawl that covered whatever I had attempted to write and why they were making those changes.   

Finally, I remember spending hours in the offices of certain partners and other senior colleagues with whom I’d been able to forge relationships, discussing client matters and the communications business in general. Many of those conversations were unplanned and spontaneous, a hallmark of the physical, in-person office environment. Those conversations and all of the experiences described above were invaluable to me and there is no doubt in my mind that I am a far better communications professional because of them. 

While we will not be home bound forever, it is everyone’s reality for the foreseeable future and, depending on individual circumstances, may continue for some even after we emerge from this crisis. It is therefore critical that while we remain in this virtual world, we think about ways to ensure that our younger colleagues continue to get that “between-the-lines” knowledge that is only learned at the office. 

Importantly, just like in a traditional office setting, and for better or for worse, the onus rests largely with the younger employees to figure out ways in the virtual world to replicate that intangible knowledge transfer. As managers, our responsibility is to take the extra time needed to explain what we are doing and why, how it all fits into the larger picture, and to really and truly take an interest in making the next generation better at this job than we are. If we do that, everyone wins not just during COVID, but also over the long term. 

For those starting out their careers, below are a few ways to make this happen: 

  • Pick up the phone—Emailing and texts may be convenient, but nothing beats a live phone call or even better, a video conversation. Look at the list of your colleagues, figure out who you want to speak with (from partners to peers), and then arrange a time to do so. You’ll be amazed by how amenable people will be to have that call with you particularly when framed as a get to know you / learn more about your career conversation.

It is also likely that through the course of these calls you will find senior colleagues who you really synch with and before you know it, what started out as a casual conversation may very well morph into a true mentor / mentee relationship. As I said before, these conversations are invaluable and are part of how careers are built. 

  • Understand the edits to a document—Rather than just blindly accept the tracked changes that your manager put into a document you wrote, ask them to jump on a quick call with you so that they take you through the rationale for their changes and suggestions. By doing this you will gain a much deeper understanding of how they are approaching the particular situation or, more importantly perhaps, how a bigger picture issue about which you are less familiar impacts the document. If you do this, your writing will undoubtedly improve.
  • Ask why—After a call with a client, see if you can get the senior person on the team back on the phone for a quick postmortem. Ask them what was behind a certain recommendation, why they choose not to challenge a client on a specific issue, or how they were able to get the client to agree to their point of view. The answers you receive are a reflection of years of experience that you can learn from, file away, and, I hope, use later when in the blink of an eye, you are the senior person on the call.

About the Author: Mickey Mandelbaum is a Partner at strategic communications firm Prosek Partners. Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Mandelbaum was the President and Founder of Muirfield Partners, a strategic corporate and financial communications firm which worked with clients primarily on special situations such as litigation support, M&A, restructuring, and other types of sensitive, company-altering events.

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