Mentors are invaluable career aids. They can guide you, defend you and develop you. They can get your foot in the door for a great opportunity—even beyond your immediate office—and help you overcome obstacles in getting a job, promotion or career change.
So how does one go about finding a mentor (or several)?
Cast a Wide Net
There's no reason that a mentor has to be someone in your own company, or even someone who does a similar job to you: pretty much anyone you regard as impressive, intelligent and insightful is potential mentor material.
Mentors within the company can help champion or cultivate you. In your company, mentors know all the players, politics, and pitfalls. Ideally, they are well-respected and secure in their positions. They may be a few rungs up the corporate ladder and can help you understand different managers' personalities and preferred working styles, office politics and the lessons they have learned.
Mentors outside of work provide objectivity. Choose mentors outside of your office who know your personality and have wisdom from a wide range of experiences. Develop relationships with at least one or two people who have no impact on your career to whom you can openly vent, turn to for perspective and ask for candid feedback. You will appreciate their distance when a work issue is too controversial to discuss with a fellow colleague, even in confidence.
Because the ideal mentor is someone who is more experienced than you, the likelihood is that your best targets will also be older than you. And getting to know someone of a different generation or who is at a different stage in life can take time.
In many cases, you may not even need a personal relationship with these people in order to learn from them. Observe their traits from a distance, and emulate them when you get in a position of power.
Additionally, you can try approaching speakers at seminars or classes; they may be receptive because they like working with younger, ambitious people who remind them of their younger selves and who are receptive to their wisdom.
Establish a broad group of mentors
Cultivate different mentors for different areas of your professional life. You should not expect one person to provide all of the counsel and guidance you need to get ahead. Pick and choose different people you admire for different reasons and use them as a resource in areas where they shine. Quality matters too -- one or two superstar mentors may do you more good in the end than a dozen slackers. Company and independent organizations for women and minorities are a great way to expand your network of mentors.
Getting the most from a mentor
Once you have mentors, be open to their advice. Do not be defensive—they have nothing to gain in giving you this advice. Mentors will only value and continue your relationship if you're communicative and sincerely value their counsel. Make sure you report back to them on your successes and setbacks.