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To make your career soar, get a mentor

Eager to retain employees, US firms are matching senior workers with newer hires.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2004

Lolita Walker didn't need to clamor for a spot on the new season of "The Apprentice" to find a mentor in the business world. Out of college for nearly five years, she's already forged relationships with eight people willing to help her navigate her career.

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"Everyone should have a mentor in their company; everyone needs a soldier in the field - someone to brag about you when you're not there, someone who has your best interests at heart," she says with the fervor of an evangelist.

Not everyone has Ms. Walker's knack for networking, but the demand for mentor relationships is growing. In response, some companies have set up formal pairings, at times resembling a dating service in the care they take to find the right match. Others give groups of new hires a peer mentor to show them the ropes. Even on the executive level, companies don't want people's leadership aspirations to wither on the vine for lack of guidance.

"The topic is on the tip of the tongues of most managers and executives [because] retention is a critical issue, and one of the key elements of retention is mentoring," says Myrna Marofsky, coauthor of "Getting Started with Mentoring" and president of ProGroup, a diversity consultancy in Minneapolis. "What used to be an informal process has now been formalized ... and linked to the company's business objectives."

Take Gen-Xers, the employees in their late 20s and 30s who don't exactly have a reputation for loyalty. Even they feel at least "indirect loyalty" when they form good relationships with co-workers and managers, according to a survey by BridgeWorks, a consulting company focused on generational issues in the workplace. More than 40 percent of Gen-Xers in its survey said that having a mentor directly influenced their decision to stay at a company.

"When you feel there's somebody there who cares ... who can help out in your development personally and professionally, it makes people stay," says Walker, an engineer at Gillette in Boston.

When she was a new employee there, Walker and a small group of her peers were matched with a male and a female executive. She sees at least one of them monthly. But she's also mentored by four people whom she approached at Gillette - plus two outside the company. She admits it's hard to leverage all those relationships, but she squeezes in phone conversations with the mentors late at night.

Early in her career, Walker says, her mentors made her savvier. She would recount how she reacted in a meeting, and they would set her straight about a more professional way to respond.

John Parks, a plant manager for Gillette in South Carolina, agreed to be her mentor when she e-mailed him a year ago. He's helped her reach "a better definition of what she wants to be," he says. "She had a very narrow scope ... and it's kind of difficult for senior managers to help you progress in your career if you're just talking about your next assignment."

As a mentor, it's satisfying to see people's personal and professional growth, Mr. Parks says. Often he's approached by fellow African-Americans, such as Walker, because he's been a trailblazer at Gillette since he arrived in the 1980s.

Parks didn't have mentors per se, but he did benefit from "indirect mentoring" by people a few levels above him. "You can be mentored in a five-minute conversation; it doesn't have to be a formal setting. As a matter of fact, some of the most worthwhile mentoring I received was [while] riding the golf cart.... Casual comments got made that gave me insight into an issue."

Corporate success has traditionally depended on those informal bonds, but not everyone has had access to the unwritten rules, says Ms. Marofsky. That's why many firms now link mentoring programs to diversity initiatives.

"We work with organizations to go below the surface, to say, 'Who are you missing in the pool of up-and- comers?' " she says. ProGroup also provides tools to guide dialogue between mentors and their protégés, because once people are paired up they often are at a loss for what to talk about.

Efforts to measure the effects of career mentoring are relatively new. Catalyst, a nonprofit research group in New York, tracked a large group of professional women of color from 1998 to 2001 and found that 69 percent of those who had a mentor had been promoted, compared with 49 percent of those who didn't. The study also showed the growing popularity of mentoring, with the portion of women with mentors rising from 35 percent to 58 percent.