Looking for Help at Work? Get a Mentor

It's been 385 years since British poet John Donne wrote that "no man is an island," but his meaning is as relevant today—even in the workplace—as it was then.

We all need help from time to time, and today's challenging business environment reminds us to face the fact that no one can achieve business success alone. There is no shortage of places to turn for support—peers, family, and friends among them—but one that is easy to overlook (perhaps because it requires a little more work) is a mentor.

In recent research among 3,600 professionals from medium to large organizations in 18 countries around the world, Accenture found that only 13% of respondents said they turn to a mentor at work for career advice. At the same time, they acknowledged the clear value of a workplace mentor: mentors helped them think differently about certain situations, helped them with their current roles, helped them see more opportunities and possibilities, and helped identify their skills and capabilities (cited by 41%, 41%, 35%, and 34%, respectively).

You might think that mentoring isn't a high priority for companies right now. Why should they focus on this gap between opportunity and people taking advantage of it with so many other challenges facing businesses today? It's simple: Companies need to groom the next generation of leaders and particularly now, mentoring is a great way to do that. Mentoring is a low-cost—even no-cost—way of transferring knowledge and institutional history.

Mentoring has always been, in part, about knowledge transfer—seasoned professionals passing down company know-how to newer employees who want to learn and grow—but it is not a one-sided relationship. In fact, being a mentor can help keep a senior executive in touch with what other people in the company are thinking. Mentees can provide insights that help mentors be better professionals and mentors. Additionally, mentees can offer a view into what's happening on the ground.

Finding and benefiting from mentors

I've had the benefit of great mentors, both male and female, who have been committed to me, my advancement, and my career, which has now spanned three decades. In turn, their investment in me has influenced my passionate commitment to others' careers and professional development and advancement. Their inspiration makes it easy to continue working to create the kind of open and committed environment that allows talent to succeed and flourish.

Having mentors can make an enormous difference in your career, and it's worth some effort to identify and learn from them. Here are some simple guidelines for people interested in having mentors:

Don't wait for mentors to come to you. Instead, seek them out—and be choosey. Not everyone is an appropriate mentor for you, and only you can tell the difference. If your first "picks" don't work out, move on and find others who will.

Learn to listen. It's so important. Get a feel for your mentors and what makes them tick, what they're concerned about, and what kind of information you could possible give them. Listening doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask questions. Let your mentor know you've been paying attention.

Don't limit yourself to one person. Learn from all the people you've chosen. Figure out which ones are the best listeners and which are good at giving advice that is practical and helpful. You might look to one for client experiences, to another for industry wisdom, and yet another for personal scenarios.

Finally, keep in mind that, whether your company has a formal program or not, mentoring demands that the parties involved work at creating successful relationships. At heart, these relationships depend on mutual trust and respect—neither of which comes without investing some time. Have a cup of coffee, take a walk…and get to know one another.

Mentors are teachers, coaches, devil's advocates, and role models who listen, offer nonjudgmental feedback, challenge assumptions, and help sort out alternatives. They can help mentees who are concerned about being "pigeonholed" in a role. They can and should urge people to take on "stretch" roles and build succession plans to help mentees move out of certain roles. And they can urge mentees to become mentors themselves, since with more of us mentoring, we can make an even greater difference.