Last Updated Oct 19, 2011 3:39 PM EDT
The key is finding a good fit: Use the following four rules to help identify someone whose company you enjoy and whose experience you can learn from.
But remember: When you reach out to a potential mentor, ask for help in a way that will want to make someone want to offer it. Be genuine about your interest, says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. "Learn about the people you wish to reach out to in order to find those similarities and areas of symmetry," says Gerber. "Put time in to learn about your ideal mentor candidates to show them that you are the real deal, and not some fan."
1. Know What You Are Looking For Your mentor shouldn't merely be someone "older and wiser" who can guide your path. What do you want out of him: A sounding board? Specific skills development? Someone who knows your industry inside and out? Someone willing to share personal ups and downs?
Remain open to nontraditional mentors: Your answers may even point you to someone younger. And remember, skills and experience can include both technical and so-called "soft" skills. "The best mentors are not only subject matter experts, but are also well-versed in personal branding, communication, leadership, and interpersonal relationships," says career coach Debra Davenport, who created the Certified Professional Mentor designation.
2. Look for Someone with Perspective A mentor's career path doesn't need to be an exact template for your own. In fact, you might find real value in learning from someone with a slightly different background. "Push yourself out of your comfort zone to work with someone who can bring a fresh viewpoint to your relationship," says Deb Busser, a partner with the executive consulting firm Essex Partners.
3. Don't Choose Your Boss You might learn from both a mentor and a boss, but that's where the similarity ends. "You want to be able to pick apart your failures with your mentor," says Margaret Morford, a management consultant and former human resources executive. Laying your failures on the table for your boss to dissect is a form of career suicide.
4. Consider the Connections You may want to choose someone who is very well-connected in your field, but that doesn't mean they have to be an industry celebrity, who probably won't get back to you anyway. "Instead, construct a list of relevant individuals whose business acumen, track record, industry connections, personality, and credibility have the potential to open doors and take your business to the next level," says Gerber.
To get an A-lister (or anyone, really) to return your call, offer to help them with something first. "Always find ways to offer assistance to individuals -- whether it's by offering them advice from your expertise, free products and services, a way for their business to increase revenues by working with you, or your time for their projects and personal areas of interest -- in order to become useful to them," says Gerber.