Mentoring: Get it. Use it. Pass it forward.

In the quest for concentrated expertise and efficiency, we’ve created a virtual labyrinth of knowledge sharing and developmental support for employees. There are intricate hidden passageways such as “unwritten rules” and tortuously high hedges, otherwise known as operating silos. But there is a way to cut through all the clutter—by integrating mentoring programs into the corporate operating structure.

“Our surveys and ROI studies demonstrate how, through mentoring, employees’ level of engagement and retention continues to rise,” says Jodi Davidson, in speaking about the Spirit of Mentoring IMPACT Program at Sodexo, a top provider of food and facilities management services with 10 million customers.

One of Allstate Insurance Company’s formal mentoring programs is Menttium, a cross-company program that brings together the most promising women from Fortune-ranked companies. Menttium matches talented mentees with executive mentors and provides them with a year of unique professional and personal development.

When mentoring goes well, it can be invaluable for mentors and mentees, as well as the organization at large.

Key goals for mentoring are to support and guide personal growth. The mentored person is in charge of his or her learning. Both parties participate as volunteers. The process is heavy on listening, being a role model, making suggestions, and providing connections.

With many successful mentoring relationships under her belt, Linda Honour, senior managing director of investment technology at Allstate Investments, LLC, reminds us, “When mentoring is legislated, getting the right fit is important. When the fit is not there, it can be tough.”

Daphne Mobley, whose career journey took her from the laboratory as a doctor of veterinary medicine to the C-suite as a chief diversity officer, points out that the most beneficial mentoring experiences are grounded in trust, rapport, and a general affinity between mentor and mentee. Mobley, now a motivational speaker, says, “Think less of the title and more about the relationship. If one mentor doesn’t work out, move on. There is always one that will.”

It isn’t just about people who are like you, either, adds Honour. “There are two sides to the equation.” There is huge value in helping others. There is also a big payback for mentors presented with the privilege of seeing life from another perspective. In mentoring a young woman from a different industry, Honour added to her knowledge bank.

While everyone seems to agree that mentoring is important, not everyone agrees on what it is. It’s best to keep it simple. Mentoring is about teaching and learning.

That is not to say the roles are mutually exclusive. Sometimes labels can be formulaic and narrow our opportunities. In fact, everyone is a teacher and a learner.

Simply put, whether formal or informal, mentoring is about relationships. Focus on people who hold positions you aspire to and have personal qualities you admire, or people who hold a view of the world you would like to see into more clearly.

Need a mentor? Ask a question. (Maybe even say something flattering.)

Learning can happen anywhere, and it can happen continuously. “Always keep your eyes open. Who is doing things that you admire? Ask questions. Pick their brain,” advises Honour. Randall Lane is senior director of global inclusion and diversity for Cisco Systems. Among his mentees is a woman who approached him by saying, “I want to do what you do. How did you get to where you are? Can you show me?”

Mentoring doesn’t necessarily require that the two parties be in the same location. Lane’s relationship with his protégé in San Jose, California, is a long-distance one, as Lane is based in Seattle. They typically meet for 45 to 60 minutes each week, and their meetings are often powered by TelePresence, Cisco’s “in-person” meeting platform that uses advanced visual, audio, and collaboration technology over a converged network.

Over the past year, Lane has seen this young woman blossom and gain self-confidence. Assessing the benefit of their relationship, he says, “She is beginning to look at new opportunities and bigger responsibilities that she previously didn’t believe she had the capacity to take on. My reward is knowing I had something small to do with it.”

Receive some good advice? Follow it.

Lucy Chan, director of growth markets and business development for IBM’s integrated account team at J. P. Morgan Chase, calls mentoring a remake of a life survival skill. Alone in the United States at the age of 16, from Hong Kong, she had to rely on the guidance of the adults she met. She turned strangers into mentors.

Early in her career, Chan attended Up Close and Personal Day at IBM. There she listened intently as the speaker advised the largely female audience to pamper themselves and celebrate their successes.

As odd as that sounded to a woman from an impoverished childhood, Chan took the advice and gave herself permission to recognize her self-worth. She put into practice the idea of treating herself in some way to mark each milestone she hit. “Generosity begins with self,” she says. “You cannot be generous with others if you don’t believe you are yourself deserving.”

Lily Tang is an executive coach and consultant who has advised Fortune 500 companies around the world.

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