In today's difficult economy, you need to take advantage of every available resource to propel your career. Finding a mentor – and preferably a network of mentors – is an easy and smart way to get started. And it won't set you back financially the way hiring a career coach would. Here's how to use mentors to improve and secure your career:
Develop a circle of mentors. Look more widely than your company-assigned mentor. You'll benefit from multiple advisers, especially if you don't click with your official one.
"Unlike a marriage, mentoring relationships do not have to be monogamous," says Ellen Ensher, the co-author of "Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most out of Their Mentoring Relationships" and a management professor at Loyola Marymount University.
And don't limit yourself to people within your company, suggests Ms. Ensher. Rather than make a cold call to a potential mentor, she recommends getting introduced through a mutual friend or colleague. "Contact more than one mentor and think about what complementary skills you might offer them," she says. Mentoring is about reciprocity. Be clear about what you hope to learn and what you can offer.
Don't count out your boss. When searching for a mentor, it's easy to overlook the person you see on a daily basis and the one who most likely has a position you covet: your boss. If you like your boss, suggest starting a mentoring relationship.
"Make sure that your direct supervisor understands your career aspirations," says Michael Fenlon, people strategy and U.S. markets human resources leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "There is nothing like having a boss who is your biggest fan and who will advertise your abilities and potential to management and other senior leaders."
Consider a "step-ahead" mentor. Many people-often mistakenly-set their sights on the company's top brass as the Holy Grail of mentors. But, more often than not, these relationships aren't the most helpful, Ms. Ensher says. "High status is not always equivalent to high competency when it comes to mentoring," she says. "Senior-level mentors may be less accessible or less patient than mentors lower in the hierarchy."
Ms. Ensher recommends a "step-ahead" mentor, someone in a position one up from your own. This type of person might have "more empathy, more time, and more recent recall and direct knowledge of career paths in the organization," she says.
Start your own program. If your company doesn't have a mentoring program, consider approaching management with the idea of starting one.
It shouldn't have to be a hard sell, especially if you include in your pitch the potential benefits to the company's bottom line. Mentoring can improve morale, help employees learn, fuel innovation and build better leaders, says William F. Banholzer, chief technology officer for Dow Chemical Co.
Do it now. If you're unemployed, don't wait until you land a position to seek out a mentor. "Look around and see who inspires you," says Ms. Ensher. "Who do you want to be like in style, career trajectory, accomplishment?"
Once you develop descriptions of those people, contact people in your network to see if anyone knows someone that meets those criteria. In addition to tapping formal sources such as career centers, professional organizations and past employers, spread the word to friends and family.
"Tell everyone you know that you are looking to connect with a specific mentor or role model, and be persistent," says Ms. Ensher.