To make your career soar, get a mentor

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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.

General Mills has an extensive set of mentoring programs, and it's planning to assess soon how well they fulfill retention and diversity goals, says Kjirsten Mickesh, manager of corporate diversity. According to its surveys, "80 percent or more think the programs have been successful," she says.

Employees say the quality of the match is key. Potential mentors and advisees fill out a questionnaire about their background, goals, and preferences for a match. Then a steering team interviews them and pairs people. A few months into the program, participants can ask for a change, but that's rare, Ms. Mickesh says.

One challenge for companies, however, is finding enough people willing to commit the time to be a mentor, Marofsky says. And the higher one climbs, the fewer people there are above to choose from. This summer, Catalyst found that only a minority of senior-level women (17 percent) and men (23 percent) in Fortune 1000 companies are satisfied with the availability of mentors.

As Ilene Hill moved up the ranks of Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based defense giant, she found she needed a new mentor. "My boss who was mentoring me before in an informal way was right at the time, because I was trying to understand the politics of the company," she says. "But then I got to a point where I [decided] ... I need somebody who can look big- picture and help me to deal with other things."

Last spring she connected with a female corporate vice president. Ms. Hill and her new mentor are both juggling family responsibilities and career aspirations. "I just have found it to be a real benefit - finding someone who can understand where I am today and where I'm trying to go," she says.

Recently, she has started mentoring someone. A consultant in her 20s approached Hill for advice after they worked together on a project. "She's interested in how I do it, with kids and everything else," says Hill, the mother of 10-year-old twins and a top manager at the Integrated Defense Systems branch of Raytheon. "She's not there yet, but [she's married] and she knows it's going to be in her future."

How to find a mentor when the company won't do it for you

It's easy to see the merits of having a mentor, but if your workplace isn't offering to pair you up with someone, where do you start?

First, lose any preconceptions that might hold you back. If you're stuck in a do-it-yourself work culture, change that culture, advises Myrna Marofsky, a workplace-mentoring consultant. If you believe potential mentors are too busy, think again, she adds. "You have to be courageous and go to people you admire.... Busy people often make time for many things."

Think strategically about whom to approach. If your goal is to learn about career paths in the company, choose a mentor who has already advanced at least a few levels beyond your own. And find out who has a reputation for helping those who don't work directly for them. If you want advice on general issues such as handling conflict or balancing work and family, you might find a mentor from a different company or another field altogether.

Your mentor doesn't have to be local, thanks to e-mail and phones, but if he or she is local, meet in person to discuss what kind of mentoring relationship you hope to establish. (As one mentor quips, "Buy them lunch!")

Tell your mentor-to-be what you admire most about him or her, what you hope to gain from the mentoring, and the structure you propose - such as talking once a month for six months or a year.

"Create a payoff for them," Ms. Marofsky says. "That's a very important piece." You can sell the idea by suggesting it will be personally rewarding to them to revisit what has made them successful, and to help someone else make good career choices. You can also share your professional network, or insights on issues that you and your mentor both care about.

Once the mentoring is under way, "be willing to listen," says John Parks, a plant manager for Gillette in Lancaster, S.C., who has mentored a wide range of people. The learner needs "a willingness to take to heart what's being shared."

And the final step: Reciprocate. You may think you don't have enough experience to be a mentor, but chances are someone is eager to learn from you - even if just to avoid making the mistakes you learned the hard way.

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