YOU recently started a new job and are eager to find a mentor. How do you find someone for this role?

Joe Watson, the chief executive of Without Excuses, a diversity consulting firm, said: “Too many workers are waiting for the equivalent of the ‘Career Fairy’ to come down and appoint them a divine mentor who can look out for their interests. These types of relationships take chemistry, synergy and trust, none of which happen overnight.”

Why are mentors important?

It is all about perspective. Mentors can provide institutional knowledge about your employer, your industry and the politics involved in both. Neil Fiore, an executive coach, said this knowledge could enable employees to “expand the learning curve” and react to situations from a more informed vantage point. “Mentors allow you the benefit of their experience to see around corners and anticipate what is coming at you so you can make better decisions,” he said.

What qualities should you look for in a mentor?

Find someone whose advice you respect who is supportive and willing to offer constructive criticism. Barbara Wankoff, a director of workplace solutions at an auditing firm, said the best mentors were selfless and committed to meeting regularly. “It all comes down to time and availability,” she said. “You want a mentor who is going to make your needs a priority, no matter what might get in the way.” Vincent Brown, a managing partner at Global Lead, a diversity consulting firm, said employees should note their career goals before setting out to find a mentor. “You can’t be mentored,” he said, “if you don’t know what areas you want to improve on.”

Should you seek someone whose life experiences mirror your own?

It is most important to choose someone you can trust and communicate with freely. It needs not be someone of the same race, sex or ethnicity, although a common background can be helpful. That was true for Robert Jeffrey, the chief executive of ColorsNW, a publishing company. Early in his career when he was one of a handful of African-Americans at a local newspaper, an African-American woman who had been at the company for years became his mentor. “She gave me what I call ‘real talk’ about the political environment at the company and how to navigate the place as an African-American,” Jeffrey recalled.

Once you’ve identified a potential mentor, do you need to formalise the arrangement?

There is a wide range of mentor relationships. Depending on your company and your mentor, you may not even need to acknowledge the relationship at all. Some employers require that you notify them of the arrangement and have both parties sign a standard contract that outlines basic responsibilities for each. A growing number of companies have taken a third approach, establishing formal mentor programmes through their human resources departments. Julie Fasone Holder, a corporate vice-president for human resources, diversity and inclusion and public affairs, said the effort was intended to make finding mentors less intimidating. She said when the match did not work out, participants were encouraged to try again.

Is it acceptable to have more than one mentor?

It may be preferable. If your primary mentor is busy or out of the office, it is good to have back-up. Rich Wellins, a senior vice-president of Development Dimensions International, a human resources consulting company, said because no one was skilled in everything, a network of mentors could increase your chances of getting good counsel. “Your career is something that should be governed by what amounts to a board of directors,” Wellins said.

This article was first published in The New York Times.

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