NEW YORK Denise Morrison says early-career guidance from the right mentor made her who she is today: the chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Co.
In the 1980s, Morrison was a director of sales planning for the U.S. arm of food company Nestle SA. Her work ethic and performance in the White Plains, New York, office caught the eye of President C. Alan MacDonald.
MacDonald would check in with Morrison, make himself available for questions and even ask her about customer feedback. Before long, he had recommended her for a promotion to business director.
"That was a defining moment," says Morrison, who is now so dedicated to mentoring that she spends as much as 20 percent of her time advising and supporting others.
Although few people have the company president as a personal advocate, Morrison's experience demonstrates how valuable mentors can be.
Mentors can help you navigate sticky office politics, teach new skills or even put your name forward when new positions arise.
In a modern twist, mentors are also relying on their protégées. Older employees often depend on younger staff for technology guidance. As employment security wanes, laid-off bosses may need to turn to former subordinates for job leads. So the relationship may be more symbiotic and less paternalistic than in the past.
Also new is the role of social media, which encourages workers of all seniority levels to advise each other, at all hours.
"The role of the mentor has continued to evolve," says Julie Nugent, senior director at Catalyst Inc, a nonprofit research and advisory group focused on advancing women in business.
One-on-one mentoring was named the second-most-effective career development program for employees below director level, after "traditional training," according to a 2012 survey of 320 human resources professionals by talent development consulting firm Insala.
But only one in five companies offer formal mentoring programs, according to a 2012 Society for Human Resources Management poll of about 550 human resources professionals.
That means you are probably on your own when it comes to getting the right mentor.
IT TAKES A TEAM
Forget the idea that one adviser can do all things.
Identify different mentors for different needs. Do you need help using your company's technology? How about someone to coach you through a challenging relationship with your boss? What about a mentor who can find opportunities for you at other companies?
To build what Morrison calls a "personal advisory board," check your university alumni groups for possible mentors. Ask someone you respect - inside or outside your company - to meet for coffee. Use social technology to post work-related questions and find the most knowledgeable people.
Next, identify a "sponsor." This is usually a more senior executive who can use his or her influence to advance you for promotions.
How do you get a sponsor? Some companies offer programs. Citi, for one, matched 62 women managing directors with advocates in 2009. Within 18 months, 22 percent had expanded roles, and 15 percent were promoted.
If your company does not help, reach out to senior executives yourself. Send them an email, or ask them to meet with you for 10 minutes.
Feeling awkward? Get over it.
"People need to be in charge of their development plan," says Morrison. "They need to seek out their sponsors and their mentors and be very strategic."
Morrison, like many in top positions, is no stranger to requests for guidance. She gets at least an email a day from people seeking a professional alliance.
"Networking is working," she says.
NEVER TOO OLD
You are never too old or too important to be mentored, and a good mentoring relationship can pay off for both parties.
Liz Davidson, 42, took a chance on recent college graduate Danielle Perry in 2009, hiring her to help with marketing and press for her start-up company, Financial Finesse, a provider of financial education programs for the workplace.
At first, Davidson trained and guided Perry. These days, she relies on the 28-year-old to keep her abreast of the latest trends in marketing.
"She got promoted two or three times, and now I consider her an adviser to me as well as the rest of the team when it comes to marketing and positioning," says Davidson. "She really manages everything. She manages me."
Mentors and mentees alike must set objectives and determine how much time to commit.
For a new parent, goals could include discussions on how to balance work demands with family stresses. A mid-level executive might need help identifying her next step within the company.
Assistance can come not only from people but also from technology, as Dennis Agusi discovered.
In January, the internal communications officer of Royal Philips Electronics faced the nerve-wracking job of giving a talk before 100 communications professionals in the Netherlands. So he used a company application called ConnectUs to request public-speaking advice.
Some 25 volunteer mentors responded, and Agusi found one who agreed to coach him. The talk was so successful that he was ranked the top speaker out of the almost dozen who presented, he said.
The next time around, he may find himself paying it forward and being the mentor himself.
(This is part of a five-story package on careers and the job market. The opinions are those of the author.)
(Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and Lisa Von Ahn)