Most executives point to mentoring as having played an instrumental role in their careers. Mentors, typically experienced executives, enter into professional relationships with less-experienced mentees to assist in the development of skills and knowledge to achieve professional growth. Mentors provide wisdom that only experience can provide. Beyond guidance and advice, mentors often provide connections through invitations to events or introductions to people in their network. In return, a mentor gets the satisfaction of giving back, and often benefits from reverse mentoring, which puts the senior professional in touch with contemporary issues. The mentor’s leadership skills can be strengthened and his or her professional network might also be expanded.

Formal mentoring relationships often occur through a matching program for new hires or in connection with a leadership development program. Matching is often done based on the program manager’s interpretation of compatibility and common purpose. Formal programs are often tied to measured outcomes and organizational goals like retention. If you are assigned a mentor, learn about his/her background and discuss with the mentor how s/he would like the relationship to develop. Look for ways to make the relationship mutually beneficial so that it becomes more than an obligation for the mentor.

Informal mentoring can be very powerful. Sometimes a less experienced person seeks out a senior person whom s/he respects and feels may be helpful. A senior manager might initiate a relationship when s/he sees potential in a junior person who would benefit from mentoring. These informal relationships are often developed based on compatibility and are most useful when the mentee is open to advice. The mentoring relationship can be outside one’s own organization and providing a safe and different perspective on one’s career decisions. These mentoring connections can be found through professional organizations, former colleagues or fellow alumni.

In seeking a mentor, look for someone whose goals are similar to yours — someone who has had a career path similar to the one you desire and who has time to give to a relationship. In any case, be respectful of a mentor’s time and work to earn confidence and establish trust in the relationship.