The biggest threat to the long-term development of an independent consultant’s career may be the potential for becoming too isolated from one’s peers. Last week I wrote about how consultants can become mentors to their clients’ employees. But consultants need mentoring, too. Yes, even if you’re considered an expert in your field, there’s always a lot more that you can learn. If you don’t keep learning, you’ll stagnate. And one of the most effective ways to learn is to converse with someone who knows some of the things that you don’t.

In the traditional office workplace, it’s natural to gravitate towards those who can provide insights into what you’re working on. As an independent consultant, though, that approach can feel more awkward. After all, they hired you for your expertise — not for you to reap their expertise, right? In fact, it’s not a zero-sum game. One of the best investments your client can make is to share their wisdom with you, because you should be able to combine that with your own unique knowledge and experience to produce something greater than either of you could have created independently.

One of my mentors is Ken Lidster, who is Chairman of the Board for one of my clients. I’ve known him for 25 years now, but I could still learn much from him about design and programming. He and I have hammered out the design of several programming language features together over the years, both when working for Synergex and when we served together on the ANSI DIBOL committee. We would often do lunch to brainstorm, and get into an almost trance-like state in our discussions. He was regularly over my head, but I like to think that I provided some benefit by asking pertinent questions. Sometimes on our way back from lunch, we’d continue our discussion in the elevator — then we’d suddenly become aware that the other people in the elevator were wondering what planet we were from. Good times.

But that was back in the days when I visited their offices daily. Now that I work remotely, Ken and I correspond occasionally via e-mail — but he has also reduced his role at Synergex, nominally retiring. Reluctantly, I needed to find mentors elsewhere.

You might think I would try to network with other consultants in my local area, but that approach hasn’t worked for me because most of them aren’t in the same specialty. Besides, I don’t want to take time away from work to be mentored — I want my mentoring to be integrated with my work.

Here’s where social media has benefits beyond sharing the funniest YouTube videos or joining in the mob fury of a Digg bury brigade. I subscribe to more than 50 feeds (several of them right here on TechRepublic) from developers and consultants that I find insightful and relevant to the work I’m doing. I participate in discussions on their sites and occasionally develop friendships that carry on into private correspondence. One side effect of this approach is that many of my mentors are now younger than I am, a fact that is less alarming than I would have imagined. But I learn something new almost every day from at least one of them, which is what being mentored is all about, after all.

The traditional mentor-protégé relationship is a one-on-one, somewhat intensive learning experience. But the isolation caused by telecommuting, combined with the immediate availability of the wisdom of hundreds of experts through their blogs and other social media, make it more practical for independent consultants to have many mentors — micro-mentors, if you will. I still consider Ken a mentor, and I soak up as much as I can any time we’re together. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get face time with a mentor, definitely do that. But don’t ignore the knowledge and experience that’s available to you online.

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