WHEN advertising executive M. Long began to feel his career was stagnating, he sought advice from a professional career coach - but one with a difference.
The consultant was Mr John Bittleston, 78, who has been a career mentor to almost 4,000 people in the past 15 years. But unlike other career coaches, he uses new technology to reach out to his clients.
This 'virtual mentoring' employs Internet platforms such as Skype and e-mail, and the telephone - on top of face-to-face sessions if that is what a client prefers.
In Mr Long's case, he was in his late 40s and working in advertising and then consultancy when he approached Mr Bittleston.
'I was questioning if I was still doing what I liked doing, or whether it was time for an overhaul. I was spending rather too much time in airports and hotels, and that was not good for my family,' he said.
Mr Long had read Mr Bittleston's book and enjoyed his Daily Paradox blog at www.terrificmentors.com
'So I got in touch with John and told him I needed help to analyse my career,' said Mr Long.
First off, Mr Bittleston gave him a long questionnaire determining personal aspects such as personality, ability, skills, dreams, ambitions and qualifications.
Like Mr Long, most of Mr Bittleston's clients are mid-career people, between 35 and 45, looking to change their jobs, although he has mentored people as young as 20 and a rare few as old as 90.
'A lot of them are in jobs which require them to travel, so I have to keep my time, and the platform, flexible for them. I don't specialise in any industry. It's up to my clients to work through which industry they think they belong in,' he said.
Mr Bittleston cited the case of Mrs TC, a mid-life, highly qualified IT expert with a problem - her boss. Her attitude was, to put it mildly, assertive bordering on aggressive.
Mrs TC was extremely clever, had passed exams at the highest level, knew her subject from top to bottom. But when she approached Mr Bittleston, she thought her boss did not appreciate her. She was convinced that her male boss was sexist, possibly even anti-women in business.
It took just three short e-mail exchanges to establish some essentials allowing her to get to grips with the problem.
In the first, Mr Bittleston asked Mrs TC about her relationships with her family, relatives and friends. A little probing revealed that she was as equally assertive outside work as in it.
In the second instance, he explored the people she cared for and those she did not. Although Mrs TC did not make the point explicitly, it became clear that she put herself in the second category.
She really did not like herself. She volunteered the reason for this: Her father had been very against her studying computing and IT. She had defied him, something that was culturally disliked, despite her success.
Finally, Mr Bittleston got her to describe how she set about handling people in a variety of situations. From this, it was obvious that she started every encounter from her point of view, not from that of the other person.
The remedy? A straightforward and relatively short virtual course by e-mail in how to handle herself and other people better.
Apart from people like Mr Long and Mrs TC, Mr Bittleston also mentors companies, mostly in the start-up phase.
'At this stage, there tends to be a lot of conflict and quarrelling about which direction to take the company. Partnerships tend to fall out very frequently at this stage,' he said.
Working with private equity and venture capital companies, often in a virtual setting, he also gets called in to help with start-ups the companies have invested in.
He generally charges $500 an hour for a face-to-face consultation. So, from the customer's point of view, it does make sense to opt for virtual mentoring. This costs $400 an hour.
From Mr Bittleston's point of view, virtual mentoring gets results faster as people tend to be more honest behind a computer screen.
'Usually, it just takes three e-mail exchanges before people start opening up. The trust and confidence come quite naturally when they realise you know what you're talking about and you're available to them online,' he said.
Mr Long, who has been mentored by Mr Bittleston since 2007, is a testament to the efficacy of virtual mentoring.
'In a face-to-face meeting, of course it is better to build rapport and bounce ideas off each other,' he said.
'But virtual mentoring makes you stop and think about the questions being asked, and makes you analyse what you are saying.
'It makes you take a step back and look at the industry you are in without letting your own experience cloud your judgment. This then allows you to be more realistic and effective in making the right decisions for yourself.'
Mr Long is so taken with the change virtual mentoring has wrought in his life, he is planning to become a mentor himself.
'I would love to be able to help people solve their problems the way John has helped me,' he said.