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Mentors Give a Tug Along Career Track

You spend weeks plotting, planning, and maneuvering to join the marketing vice president's task force on a new TV campaign, only to discover that the firms' next big marketing push will focus on the Internet.

Or you greet the president by her first name, then hear that the last assistant manager who did that now works in the mail room.

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The workplace offers both opportunity and peril; the challenge is how to navigate them. Some help would be nice.

Such help, attached to a "mentoring" moniker has become an important engine to help push careers along the track.

A growing number of companies are rolling out programs that match employees with other employees, both inside and outside the firm.

Your career, your responsibility

And with workers now responsible for their own development - for becoming more employable - such relationships are critical to career success.

"Mentoring is something that is so unbelievably vital in today's organizations ... because people are going to find themselves cut adrift once they're hired," says Jean Otte, founder of WOMEN Unlimited, a mentoring program for women.

Mentors serve a variety of roles - navigators for the rough seas of corporate politics, sounding boards, and door openers.

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"On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most important, they have been a 10 in my career," says Denise Marks, a manager at a large accounting firm in Boston.

"It's important to have someone behind you, fighting for you," she adds. "If you're not getting the right assignments or have problems to solve, you need to go to someone who has more clout."

Mentoring also fills the gap left by downsizing, which eliminated layers of managers once responsible for employee development.

"The old management structure had a report structure in most companies of a 1-to-8 ratio. Today, that relationship has gone to 1-to-30 or 1-to-40," says Ken Patch, director of career management services at Motorola.

Two years ago, Motorola launched a volunteer mentoring program for a 600-employee division of the company. It paired workers across all levels. Many of those pairs are still active.

Companies have also paid more attention to mentoring to help retain women and minority workers, who say finding mentors tends to be more difficult because people tend to mentor people who are like them.

"Mentoring in the past has been for the privileged few," says Gayle Holmes, president of Menttium, a Minneapolis-based company that markets corporate mentoring programs. "It was the senior guy who noticed a young rising star and said, 'Follow me buddy, and when I retire you're going to sit in my seat.'"

More than just 'good grooming'

But the days of lifetime employment are over, and grooming someone for a long-term post no longer makes sense.

Instead, mentoring today sets short-term goals. It's more about finding someone who can help you develop a particular skill than forming an informal relationship that survives on chemistry alone.

"Some people thought of the mentor as Prince Charming who will come riding by on a white horse ... and take them up that wonderful career-advancement ladder," says Mary Bellamy Jones, director of corporate services for Career Development Services, a consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y.

"People who are being more realistic about mentoring will say, 'OK, what are the skills I need to develop in order to become more employable, and who can help me,' " she says.

Indeed more workers are calling for such programs. At the request of younger managers, Georgia Pacific in Atlanta last year installed a pilot mentoring program with Menttium. It matched 25 entry-level managers with 25 senior managers.

"We had a 95 percent success rate," says Kathy Bragg, director of human resources. In fact it was so successful it survived a series of cost-cutting measures.

The key is making the right matches.

"Law firms are notorious for establishing mentoring programs, but it's all over the board in terms of what happens," says Brad Harper, president of Trigon Executive Assessment Center in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"These mentors are typically assigned, and if you are fortunate enough to find a partner who takes you on, you're in real good shape," he says. "There are others who say, 'I don't have time for this.'"

But mentoring often works as well for the mentors as their protgs.

"I got a lot of feedback from senior managers who felt like it was a learning experience for them more than a teaching effort," says Ms. Bragg at Georgia Pacific.

In particular, they learned the challenges younger employees face balancing work and family duties.

"We have a large number of senior-management men who have nonworking spouses and had not faced the pressures that a woman manager with a young child faces," she says.

"The mentors would say, 'I know better what these women are facing even if they haven't brought these issues to me.' "

Why Have a Mentor, Anyway?

Because you need someone who can:

* Show you the ropes.

* Explain the unwritten rules.

* Help steer your career.

* Act as a sounding board.

* Give you good press.

* Offer you praise and point out your mistakes.

The Right Mentor for You

MENTORS are not necessarily just for beginners in the workplace.

Experts say most people need one, even if they're already halfway up the corporate ladder.

So how do you find the right people for the job, and how do you get them to sign on?

Approach the process as if you're building your own board of directors, career counselors say.

You should have many mentors throughout your career. And you can have more than one mentor at a time. It's a good idea to choose a few people who are different from you.

"Mentoring relationships are not about being comfortable," says Gayle Holmes, president of Menttium, which markets mentoring programs. "The most learning occurs when you're with someone who is not a mirror reflection of yourself."

Not everybody, however, makes a good mentor. Here are a few things to consider:

* They should be well respected. They don't have to be at the top of the firm, either. Even peers can provide valuable mentoring.

* They should have the necessary life experience and work experience to address the issues and skills you want to improve.

* They should be good listeners. "Mentors are not people who want to instantly fix your problem. That's your father," says Jean Otte, founder of Women Unlimited, a mentoring program for women. "You want someone who leads you down that path of discovering it yourself."

* Mentors need to be frank, to give positive and critical feedback. It doesn't help you if your mentor can't bring himself to be critical.

* They should also keep all conversations confidential. Sometimes it's better to have a mentor outside your company. "While it's great to have internal mentors to show you the ropes, you cannot be totally open and honest with somebody in your workplace," Ms. Otte says. "It's too dangerous."

Once you've identified a potential mentor, don't run right up to that person and ask: Will you be my mentor?

"That's kind of a scary question," says Mary Bellamy Jones of Career Development Services in Rochester, N.Y. Instead, focus on what help you need and put a time limit on it.

"The more specific you can be about the time and commitment you're asking from the mentor the better," she says.

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