In the corporate-advice business, a mentor isn't everything

For all up-and-coming business people who have yet to snare an official mentor, the news is good: You don't need one. This is the latest word among management consultants, who have the studies to prove it.

Some of you may have noticed that these are the very folks who told you to get a mentor - an older, more experienced businessman to guide, guard, promote, and encourage you - in the first place. Since the early 1970s, when Yale's Daniel Levinson suggested that those getting started in business need a judicious guide to get ahead, the corporate-advice business had been soggy with the mentor mind-set.

Now the advice is, in the words of Boston consultant Cheryl Lieberman, ''not to put all your eggs in one basket.''

Her recommendation is that young recruits look instead for ''sponsors,'' lots of them, to ''endorse you'' to others. ''Many people think that all you need to get ahead is to do a good job. Well, it's just not true. You need people in the upper echelons pointing out your good job to others,'' she says - the more, the better.

You also need someone to introduce you at meetings, someone to tell you ''how to follow through without being a nag,'' someone to advise you on career paths outside the company, and so on - bits of wisdom resident in several different people, according to New York consultant Marilyn Machlowitz. Many new managers are already looking to more than one mentor, says Dr. Machlowitz, who turned up only two people with mentors in a recent survey of 60 achievers in the corporate world.

Not only does a wide variety of sponsors give you a wider range of experience to harvest, she points out; they're also easier to get than mentors. ''Being a mentor can be a very emotionally involving, draining situation,'' she believes. ''But if you just ask someone to get you into the right club, or tell you how to make a good presentation, that's different.''

And, she says, there have been problems with the mentor relationship: ''People get used to seeing you as No. 2, and wonder if you can do anything on your own.''

''If your mentor falls out of grace,'' Dr. Lieberman points out, ''it's hard to get ahead.''

Dr. Lieberman agrees with the sponsor concept - but she calls it ''alliances, '' and says you need them ''up, down, and sideways.'' The ''up'' sounds suspiciously like the old ''mentor'' (only multiplied), but the ''sideways'' turns out to be the equivalent of a ''buddy.''

Dr. Lieberman gets specific: ''Years ago, the telephone company hired women for the first time to do wiring. They all quit after a short period of time. When the company investigated, they found that during lunchtime the veterans were taking the young men aside and teaching them the tricks of the trade, but no one did that for the women.

''So they built in a 'buddy system' for newcomers to orient them to the job, '' she explains. Building your own do-it-yourself buddy system may turn up a number of tricks and shortcuts, she suggests.

Dr. Lieberman also thinks managers should build alliances with subordinates, because it ''helps your job.'' She gives the example of a secretary who is allowed a great deal of discretion in handling phone calls. ''If she can handle a problem when it comes in without passing it on or making the person play telephone tag, it reflects well on you,'' she points out.

She advises that managers ''don't take credit for everything (subordinates) do, and make sure they're working on relevant projects, places where they can have some impact.'' This improves morale and production, she thinks.

Isn't all of this advice just common sense? Well, yes, the consultants admit - but so was getting a mentor. It's a ''routine practice of the male world,'' writes Helen Rogan in the October Harper's, ''elevated to the level of a religious ritual.''

Like many rituals, it turns out that this one is often unnecessary.

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