When I started doing research for "New Girl on the Job: Advice from the Trenches"--the book I refer to as the cannon of advice I wish I had before I started working--I asked Jean Otte to walk me through the nuts and bolts of finding a mentor. Otte is the founder and CEO of Women Unlimited, an organization that partners with companies such as American Express, IBM, and Yahoo! to attract, retain, and develop emerging, high potential and executive women. Otte summed it all up when she said: "Even Tiger Woods has a coach. No one does it alone, and you need a network of people to help if you want to be successful."
And that's not conjecture. In the July/August 1978 issue of the Harvard Business Review a landmark study, "Everyone who Makes it Has a Mentor": Interviews with F. J. Lunding, G.L. Clements and D. S. Perkins," was aptly summed up by a 2000 New York Times article, Management: As They Say, a Good Mentor Is Hard to Find. "Nothing beats the human touch for learning how to navigate the shoals of workplace politics." This finding rings especially true for women. In 2002, a survey by Simmons School of Management, found that women with informal mentors reported a greater number of promotions and a higher advancement rate than those without mentors.
However, for women at all rungs of the ladder, finding a mentor is a daunting process that is rarely, if ever, demystified. So, here's the first point of clarification about mentoring: Do away with the "Will you be my mentor?" line. As most people will tell you, it's a relationship that develops organically. In addition, the question, "Will you be my mentor?" presents a probably very busy person with a request that sounds vague, time-consuming, and overly formal. It's the workplace equivalent of blurting out, "Will you be my boyfriend?" The better tactic, experts say, is to seek out someone because you admire the way s/he pitches clients, writes computer code, or drafts contracts, and then approach them with a direct request. People's time is the most sought after commodity of the 21st century, so it's important to show a potential mentor that you value them and their time by coming prepared with something specific to talk about. Swinging by just to shoot the breeze isn't the savviest way to win over a mentor to be.
Those at the top of their fields and in the trenches agree that persistence, peppered with the right dose of nudging, is a winning strategy as well. But proceed with a bit of caution, as there is a very fine line to be drawn between persistent determination and pest. One of the young women I interviewed for "New Girl on the Job"--Myia, 27, an up-and-coming executive at a large media conglomerate--told me that her doggedness or "stalking," as she put it, was how she got her current mentor to invite her over for dinner. Myia said the executive even acknowledged the hounding. "When I introduced myself, her immediate response was, 'Oh, you are my stalker,' but then she invited me to a dinner at her house." Which brings up another critical point: mentors do not magically appear. They usually have to be identified, sought out, and encouraged.
And, please, don't stop with one. Aim to create a network of mentors. Think of it like building a team. Otte says the tendency for women, especially, is to get "caught in the smokestack." In other words, just because you work in marketing doesn't mean all your mentors have to be. The key, Otte says, is to diversify your resources. You need different mentors to guide you about office politics, compensation, the day-to-day aspects of your job, and your long-term career goals. Again, this is not speculation. A 2004 New York Times piece, "Executive Life; Putting a Formal Stamp on Mentoring," noted the study by David A. Thomas, a Harvard Business School professor, that looked at racial minorities at three large corporation and found that the most successful had a strong network of mentors.
Most importantly, 'mentor' is not a euphemism for having someone there to give you constant unconditional praise. The high-achieving women I interviewed for "New Girl on the Job" stressed that the most effective mentors are the ones that tell it like it is. When I spoke with Judy Woodruff, the former CNN anchor, she said that early on in her career she always asked her mentors a ton of questions like, "How am I doing?" and "How does my work look?" to get concrete feedback on ways to become a better journalist. "I had one guy tell me that I needed to work on my voice. He was the only person that told me that. Later on, when I applied for a job at NBC, they said I had a southern accent I needed to work on. I remember someone saying to me, 'You sound like you are reporting from a tea party.' That's the kind of advice everyone needs."
There's also a bigger picture here for women, beyond just having a mentor. If we, as the rising generation in the workplace, get hip, early on, to building relationships with mentors not only will we get promoted more, but we'll develop a professional network - the hallmark of becoming a mover and a shaker.