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Finding a good mentor to help steer your career is now more valuable than ever

Tobias Olsen was in a jam. Responsible for the mentoring program at the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., he is charged with pairing individuals seeking mentors with a cadre of officers, pilots, lawyers and the military’s finest. Up until recently, he attempted to do this staring at spreadsheets, hoping to make the right match and knowing that the stakes were high.

How high? Brad Johnson, co-author of “The Elements of Mentoring” (St. Martin’s Press), puts it this way: “People who have great mentors do better. They get more promotions. They’re more confident. They get higher performance ratings. They have better networks. They make more money and they are more committed to their jobs. A good mentor can change your life.”

At the time, the Coast Guard Academy’s record of mentorship success was only at 65 to 70 percent. “We were seeing too many missed opportunities and too many poor connections,” says Olsen. So, he sought to find a better way.

It came in the form of a mentoring software platform, Chronus, where prospective mentees answer about 15 questions, ranging from “Tell me about yourself” and “What are you looking for in a mentor?” to demographic data and so on. When the information is mashed up with the data of available mentors and fed into a computer algorithm, potential matches are generated. Mentees can fine-tune their initial criteria, but at the end of the day, pairings work out about 97 percent of the time.

If it sounds to you sort of like how dating sites and social networks work, you’re on the money. Think Match.com for mentorships. There are also online classes where you can learn from your business heroes without spending on anything, except for maybe a cup of coffee.
Here’s how it works.

Mentorship 2.0

Scrolling through an employee directory looking for a mentor is a stab in the dark — in fact, experts don’t recommend it. Selecting a person who can give you the skinny on how your company works and provide insight on solving a specific problem is no easier.

This is why many employers bring mentoring platforms like Chronus, MentorcliQ and River into their organizations.

Megan Wolverton, senior director of marketing at MentorcliQ, says that they have customers who use their platform to set up three-month relationships between new hires and established employees. Data used in the algorithm might look for similar geographies, universities, social affiliations and so on.

Scott Urstad, vice president of customer success at Chronus, says that “flash mentoring” is now hot. It pairs a mentee with an expert to get information or advice on a project in the immediate future. “As opposed to traditional mentorships, the expectations of a longer relationship aren’t there,” he says. Employers pay for the platforms.

Career coaching democratized

Until recently, only top managers were paired with an executive coach. Sessions were almost always in person, often required travel and cost thousands of dollars. At progressive companies, this has now changed. Thanks to eHarmony.com-like pairing technologies and video communication software like Zoom, high-potential employees and budding executives can get the training and support that they need from some of the best coaches in the field through platforms like Sounding Board.

“It used to be that only 15 percent of leaders had access to coaches. That has now flipped,” says Christine Tao, CEO and co-founder of the company. And get this: If you are panicked before a presentation or worried about a meeting, you can Slack your coach for advice or an encouraging word.

BetterUp, another coaching platform, is geared toward a wider range of employees. Alexi Robichaux, the company’s CEO and co-founder, is on a mission to enable all professionals to live with greater clarity, purpose and passion. With BetterUp, applicants complete an assessment that identifies their mindset, behaviors, strengths and goals. Then, using artificial intelligence, BetterUp pairs them with coaches. What’s notable is that it’s not just for career help — coaching is also available for sleeping, nutrition, parenting and so on.
Master classes with the stars.

If you trail your idols on channels like LinkedIn and Twitter, watch them on Webinars and maybe even stand on line at conferences to meet them, getting their attention might be easier than you think.

“Start a dialogue with me [on a social network] and over time, tell me why me, specifically,” says Nicola Kastner, vice president and head of global event marketing strategy at software and technology solution company SAP. “One woman heard me on a podcast and commented, ‘Oh, my God, you changed my life!’ ” she says. Kastner was then willing to spend a few minutes chatting. From there, a conversation can begin; and, if there’s time in Kastner’s schedule and value she thinks she can provide, a mentorship, too.

Kurt Daniel, CEO of Ubersmith, thinks it takes a lot of guts to approach a stranger and ask for help. “Someone’s taken a risk — you have to respect that,” he says. But at the same time, it’s good to have something in common. Maybe you both attended the same school, or you’re a startup CEO and want to talk about recruiting, or you have reason to believe he can help you solve a problem.

If you can’t find a commonality, Kathy Caprino, author of “The Most Powerful You” (HarperCollins Leadership; out July 28), suggests you first get on the prospective mentor’s radar. “Follow their work, and be helpful and supportive,” she says. “Tweet out their posts, comment in a positive way on their blogs, share their updates, start a discussion on LinkedIn, drawing on their post. In short, offer your unique voice, perspectives, experiences and resources to further the action and conversation that these influencers have sparked. Understand that you are able to be of service to them and go out and do it.”

Hire a pro

If all of this sounds like too much work and your employer doesn’t have a program to offer, you can find a professional coach through the International Coach Federation, the main accrediting body for both training programs and coaches. Coaches set their own rates, from $100 up to $500 an hour, with an average between $120 and $340.

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