mentor.jpgThere is no better time to think about climbing the ladder of success than during a tough economy. No, I haven’t lost my mind folks.

Seriously, just because you’re worried about what the future holds for your job, your company, doesn’t mean you should derail your leadership ambitions. And the best way to move up is with a mentor.

Great companies are still very much interested in growing great leaders, and as they cut budgets for so many employee benefits, some firms are actually looking to invest in mentorship programs this year.

This from Workforce Management magazine:

Nearly one in five companies plan this year to initiate some type of mentoring or coaching to help top employees make the transition to leadership, according to a study by Boston-based Aberdeen Group.

Seventy-six percent of companies surveyed said they have used mentoring in an effort to deliver critical leadership skills. Nearly two-thirds said they find mentoring to be effective. Twelve percent found it ineffective.

So that means even if your company isn’t spending money on membership programs, most like the idea of mentoring. This presents a great opportunity for you because trying to set up an informal mentoring relationship with a manager you respect may be easier than you think.

Why am I encouraging this?

First off, since most mentors you choose are probably older than you, because you’re definitely looking for experience, you may also benefit from their take on economic ups and downs. Surely, they’ve lived through and survived more than one downturn.

And statistics show mentors can lead to money and power.

One study of more than 500 executives in the health care industry found mentors paid off big time.

“We discovered that women with mentors received more promotions than men,” says Anne M. Walsh, associate professor in the management department at Philadelphia’s La Salle University. “In our study, the mentors provided access to promotional opportunities which ultimately affected compensation,” she explains. “Mentors raised the visibility of these women in the organization, and helped them to develop the skills for these promotions. Mentors are also instrumental in providing feedback about job performance (e.g. act as a coach) and help women develop the skills that are required to compete in the job market.”

Indeed, almost every CEO and top executive I’ve interviewed over the years told me they had a mentor that helped them reach the heights they wanted in their careers.

“I’ve found the great leaders seek out individuals who they believe are smart, deep thinkers with lots of experience,” says Albert A. Vicere, executive education professor of Strategic Leadership at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University.

In my book, “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office,” I interviewed David Brennan, CEO of AstraZeneca, and he talked about how his mentor found him.

For four years, Brennan worked as a sales representative for Merck out in the field when he got his first promotion to an “inside” position, where he came face to face with a man that would become his long-time teacher. He ended up working under Elliot Margolis who was in charge of field administration for the pharmaceutical firm, handling field sales support and training and development. “Elliott was very customer focused. He had been a physician so he knew what it was like on the other side,” he explains. For some reason, and Brennan still doesn’t have a definitive answer for it, Margolis selected him to be his informal mentee. “I’m not sure why he did. Maybe he saw me working and thought I could do well, maybe he saw potential in me. It’s not something he did often, mentoring,” he adds. “I think we just hit it off.”

It was not a specific moment when Margolis announced “okay, I am now your mentor”. It was more an air of openness between the senior manager and employee where by Brennan just knew he could go to Margolis with his questions, concerns and Margolis would help guide him. “He was somebody you could sit down and talk to about what was going on. He never had an office. He had a work area you could just go and visit. His workspace was all glass. You could look in and see if he was busy or not and then just head in. He even had a partial desk set up on the wall so he could stand sometimes when he worked,” he recalls.

You have to be open to the smart people around you at work. Maybe someone shows an interest in you, or is just a nice guy or gal. Use that connection to ask for help, to ask if they have time for a cup of coffee, etc.

While you should definitely take advantage of what ever your company offers in the shape of formal mentoring, many of you who don’t work for major corporations, or who are striving to be entrepreneurs should consider looking for mentors in their communities, i.e. at their local chambers, newtorking groups, or even places of worship. Or just approach successful business leaders you might want to emulate and learn from. If they’re put off by the request you’re probably better off without them as mentors.

There are also national organizations such as MentorNet, which offers minorities an e-mentoring network in the science and engineering fields. And MENTTIUM Corp., which provides mentoring services for companies and individuals.

Bottom line, if you’re waiting for the economy to turn around before you start taking charge of your career trajectory it may be too late.

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