Most Admired Companies

When your mentor is half a world away

March 9, 2012: 9:56 AM ET

IBM's 170,000 virtual employees worldwide rarely, if ever, lay eyes on each other. Here's how they make long-distance mentoring work.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: For the past two and a half years, since I graduated from college and got my first real job, I've been lucky to have a terrific mentor, a couple of levels above me in the company. We get together for lunch, coffee, or just a quick chat at least twice a month, sometimes more. Not only do I really enjoy these sessions, but her advice and insights have helped me get some great assignments (and a promotion).

Now, she's been chosen to spend a year running a new operation we are starting up in China. It will be very demanding and, on top of the 12-hour time difference between here and there, she is going to be extremely busy. I'd like to continue our relationship, but I'm wondering, how realistic is it to expect that? — Waving Good-Bye

Dear Waving: The short answer, from Nicki Rich: "If you both want it to work, there's no reason why it can't." Rich, a cloud computing executive at IBM (IBM) in Beaverton, Ore., has worked with about 25 mentees since she started at the company 14 years ago. While on an eight-week assignment in Asia in 2008, Rich began mentoring a junior colleague in Jakarta, and the two have stayed in close touch ever since.

That's not to say the time difference presents no challenges. "It's nine hours later here than in Indonesia, so the best time for her to talk might be when I'm sitting down to dinner with my family -- or she'll send me a text at 3 a.m.," Rich says. "But it's not a problem. We both want to maintain the relationship, so we make adjustments."

It helps that IBM, No. 5 on this year's list of the Most Admired Companies, has built a culture of knowledge sharing, including a strong emphasis on mentoring. Since about 40% of Big Blue's 426,000 employees worldwide are virtual or mobile -- meaning they work from the road, or from one-or-two-person outposts where they rarely meet bosses or colleagues in person -- the company has a wealth of experience with long-distance collaboration. More

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