4 Tips for Getting the Most Out of your Mentor

Last Updated Feb 10, 2011 3:19 PM EST

Finding a mentor in your field is a tried and true way to climb the corporate ladder, both faster and with firmer footing. Successful people from Oprah Winfrey to Jay Leno have demonstrated that mentors can be the difference between being naturally good at your job and achieving greatness. (If you're interested, O's early advisor was poet laureate Maya Angelou, while Leno had the ear of late-night pioneer Johnny Carson.) But the benefits of a mentor/pupil relationship aren't limited to Hollywood.

Research conducted by Sun Microsystems found that mentees in their corporate program got promoted five times as often as employees who were not being mentored. These benefits appear to hold true for both promotion possibilities and raises even in a bad economy.

If you want to fast-track your next promotion or salary bump you can -- and should -- find one right in your very own office, or, at the very least, in your industry.

I asked career strategist Adele Sheele, PhD, for her four best tips to building a strong mentor-pupil relationship.

1. Get close to potential mentors
"Look for those who you admire in your organization and in your profession. Find them by serving on committees or task forces within your organization and professional associations," says Scheele. See a rising star at your company? Time to hitch a ride. If a potential mentor is within your company, you have the added benefit of them going to bat for you with management and HR -- plus, they'll understand your corporate climate. On the other hand, a mentor outside your company can help you look at your career in a broader perspective and assist you in looking for a new job if that's your ultimate objective.

2. Ask small questions first

Once you've identified a possible mentor, feel them out before you start quizzing them on the best way to get the corner office or balance work and family. "Ask if you can get their advice on a project -- a shared one is best. Don't ask them to sign up to be your life support," says Scheele. Remember that advisors come in all forms, so you might be mentored by more than one person to fit various needs. One might be a sounding board in times of crisis, while another might sit down with you to map out your next five career moves.

3. Continue to sow the seeds slowly

Once you've developed some rapport, thank your mentor for their help. Then ask them some more questions about themselves. "Ask them about their own lives: where they grew up, what their college/grad school experience was like, and who helped them," says Scheele. Once you've gotten to know each other better, share your goals and ask them how they think you should meet them. Unless your mentor knows specifically where you want to head, they can't help you get there.

4. Network like it's your job
Regularly expanding your network will not only lead you to many potential mentors, it's just good career sense. But never forget the number one rule of networking -- give and take. Whether you're working with a mentor or just a peer, help someone now and they'll be more likely to help you tomorrow. And don't forget to share your successes with your mentor(s). They've given you their support because they want to see you succeed. Make sure they witness it--not only is it nice for them, but you'll keep the connection open for future opportunities.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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