Finding a mentor is a lot like dating. It’s going to take more than one date to discover if you’re compatible. It will probably mean going out with more than one person. And, just like you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, it’s best not to ask someone to be your mentor right away.
But if you’re able to find “the one,” it could mean a long and rewarding relationship.
The right mentor can connect you to professional networks, job interviews, and career advancement. Research shows the benefits of mentoring. In a study of the mentoring program at California technology firm Sun Microsystems, employees in the program were promoted more than twice as often as employees who didn’t participate.
“Everyone needs a mentor whether they recognize it or not,” said Rene Petrin, founder of Management Mentors in Chestnut Hill, which designs and implements mentoring programs for businesses. “A mentor is a person who takes an interest in you and can help open doors.”
The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, for instance, developed a mentoring program five years ago. Members fill out an online application form and are matched with mentors.
Maureen O’Regan, 41, of Orleans, sought a mentor familiar with making the transition from agency work to private practice. After moving to Cape Cod from Georgia, the advice she received helped her develop a practice specializing in addiction and personality disorders.
Technology has revolutionized mentoring in much the same way eHarmony and other online matchmakers have changed the dating game. Online mentoring startups, such as Everwise of San Francisco, provide mentor matching services.
Corporate customers such as PayPal and Walmart pay about $150 a month for Everwise’s service as a professional-development benefit for employees. Someone interested in moving into management, for instance, might connect with an experienced manager.
Supportive mentors can help people develop the confidence needed to break out of comfort zones and get ahead. At the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, a mentoring program helped an employee switch from office to the field work helping to protect the endangered Florida panther, said Sharon Fuller-Barnes, manager of the agency’s mentoring program.
“The mentoring process gives you that push to do that thing you might not know you have the skills and abilities for already,’’ said Fuller-Barnes.
You don’t need a formal program to find a mentor. While a student at Bentley University in Waltham in 2009, Bill Connolly met Dan Schawbel, an alumnus, at a social gathering at the university.
The two, both interested in marketing, clicked almost immediately. Schawbel invited Connolly to lunch and offered him an internship with his marketing firm, Millennial Branding.
“Bill didn’t ask me to be his mentor,” Schawbel recalled. “I just naturally took him under my wing because he was a marketing major, was very intelligent, and my company was growing so he became a valuable asset.”
Schawbel later published his New York Times bestseller, “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success,’’ and helped Connolly market a book of his own, “Funny Business: Build Your Soft Skills Through Comedy.’’ That, in turn, helped Connolly land a job in New York with iCrossing, a digital marketing agency.
A search for a mentor should begin by taking stock of your goals, Schwabel and Connolly said. Next, look for people who can help you achieve them.
“It might take 50 [dates] before you find the right person,” said Schawbel, 31. “You have to earn a mentoring relationship. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.”
In searching for the right mentor, specialists say, start by asking people you admire to meet for a half hour — perhaps over coffee — for career advice. A good place to start: professional and networking groups. Your alma mater and LinkedIn groups can yield mentoring gold.
The nonprofit Cape Cod Young Professionals recently received a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public economic development agency, to develop a mentoring program. The program, which kicks off this month, includes a monthly speed mentoring session, similar to speed dating in which people meet each other through short rotations that typically last less than 10 minutes.
“It can be intimidating to face professional hurdles if you don’t have the support you need” said Anne Van Vlek, executive director of Cape Cod Young Professionals. “Mentors provide that guidance and direction.”Joan Axelrod-Contrada is at joanaxelrodcontrada