Whether you're facing a specific challenge, going through a transition or just starting out in your career, there is something very alluring about the idea of having a mentor.
The appeals are obvious: someone older and (hopefully) wiser to learn from, take you under their wing and go in to bat for you when the going gets tough. A good mentor is both a provocateur and a source of comfort: part Robin Williams's inspirational English teacher in Dead Poets Society, part chicken soup for the corporate soul.
Certainly, evidence suggests that mentoring can have big benefits - particularly for women. A survey of the 2010 winners and finalists of the Telstra Business Women's Awards found that among Australia's leading businesswomen, mentoring was thought more important than quotas for achieving gender equality in the workplace. "Mentoring allows you to learn from other people's experiences so you don't have to reinvent the wheel," explains leadership expert Jen Dalitz.
Sometimes these relationships are set up through formal channels - company or industry mentoring programs that match junior and senior staff members - but often the most successful mentoring relationships develop organically, when two people with similar interests and values meet and hit it off.
Take former Packed to the Rafters star Jessica Marais, 26, and her on-screen mum, Rebecca Gibney, who have spoken openly about the close relationship they developed while working on the show together.
For Marais, who is now filming a television project in Miami, Florida, Rafters was her first job out of drama school - not to mention her first role performing in front of a camera. Working with Gibney helped her deal with the pressures of "being thrust into the public eye", says Marais.
The bond between the two women was immediate. "I think [Rebecca] sees a lot of herself when she was younger in me. She has definitely tried to guide and protect me and make sure I keep my head centred," says Marais - whether that might mean putting a less-than-perfect performance into perspective, or not reading the press surrounding the show.
Gibney's acting chops didn't hurt, either. "Right up until the last day she was still pulling out performances that surprised me, which is unusual after you've been working with someone for three or four years."
Marais, one of Australia's most successful young actors, attributes the speed with which she landed on her feet in the US partly to luck - "I really was prepared for maybe two years of unemployment," she says - but also to the mentoring she has received from Gibney and others. She cites the drama teacher she had while growing up in Perth, who noticed Marais's talent and urged her to go to drama school. "I would not be a very good actress if I hadn't had all those people around me," says Marais. "And I don't think I would have survived the industry so far."
Aimee Marks, 24, is another enterprising young Australian woman who has reaped the benefits of mentoring from older, more experienced business people. Marks was just 17 when she decided she wanted to start Australia's first organic tampon company, TOM Organic. Over that time, she has worked with a number of mentors, ranging from schoolteachers and university lecturers to high-profile businesswomen such as Carolyn Creswell of Carman's Fine Foods and Janine Allis of Boost Juice.
"To be able to look up to people like that is so reassuring," says Marks. "You really do get a kick of adrenalin from sitting across the table from someone who is successful and willing to help you."
As an early-career entrepreneur dealing with large companies, Marks says her mentors have given her confidence that she is on the right track. "I always had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed to surround myself with people who believed in me. When you're dealing with huge corporations and in areas you're not experienced with, it is so critical to be able to sleep at night knowing you've made the right decisions."
She recalls a meeting with a major retailer before the product launched, after which one of her mentors took her aside. "He reminded me that I had a choice. I could either jump straight in the deep end, or I could choose to create a demand so those retailers would eventually come to me. We ended up deciding to deal with independent supermarkets, pharmacies and health food stores instead, which resonated 100 per cent with the philosophy of the brand."
Marks's strategy is clearly working: TOM has recently formed partnerships with the Australian Cervical Cancer Foundation and Miranda Kerr's Kora Organics. But it's not all sunshine and rainbows - Marks warns that the best mentors aren't the "yes" people. "You want there to be a click, but for the relationship to challenge you. I remember doing a print run on a packaging design I was completely in love with, and one of my mentors was like, 'Is that it?' There's a lot you can learn from someone who has been there and done that."
And in the best mentoring relationships, that learning process goes two ways. Jen Dalitz recalls an executive she mentored, who a few years later was advising Dalitz on how to manage a career and young children. "It doesn't matter if the person is more junior or more senior. You always learn something from sitting down and talking about your experiences in business," says Dalitz.
In other words, being a mentor isn't an entirely altruistic experience - it can also be enjoyable. Kerri Pottharst won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics alongside her beach volleyball teammate Natalie Cook. Now she works as a motivational speaker and author (The Business of Being an Athlete), as well as mentoring aspiring athletes. "I love to pass on the skills and tools that I've developed," she says.
A few months ago, Pottharst started working with fellow Sydneysider Jenny Owens, a ski cross athlete working to win gold in the 2014 Winter Olympics. The pair met through their mutual support of the Manly Sea Eagles, and immediately hit it off. "She enlightened me as to how many costs are involved in being a Winter Olympian, and I told her I'd love to help her," says Pottharst. "After competing in sport for over 20 years, everything she could be going through is something I've already been through."
Pottharst and Owens started meeting over Skype, devising ways Owens could devote maximum time to her sport and compete in as many events as possible. One result of their brainstorms is the soon-to-be-launched Team Owens, a group of supporters who will be rewarded for their loyalty with prizes and personal contact. "These days, you cannot succeed as an athlete if you are working on the side. There will be other people somewhere in the world doing their sport full-time."
As with Jessica Marais and Rebecca Gibney, there is a calming element to the relationship as well. "Athletes can take on too much," says Pottharst. "Having another athlete who has won gold say, 'It's okay to take a week off when you're recovering from the flu', or, 'It's okay to eat that', is important."
Not all mentoring relationships involve people working in the same field. Nor is it always clear who plays the part of the mentor and who is the mentee. Melbourne lawyer Peta Olive found her perfect mentoring dynamic not in a single, experienced figure, but in the experiences of her 30-something peers.
The group started out as a book club, but soon turned into something bigger. "Now we don't talk about books any more, we simply talk about our lives and what we're working on," says Olive. She believes the group's strength lies in its diversity - the circle includes entrepreneurs, authors, architects and stay-at-home mums. "Prior to meeting these women, my career was somewhat one-dimensional. I was a lawyer going through the process. Now my goals are bigger and better than I could ever have imagined."
This kind of non-hierarchical approach to mentorship is probably more realistic than the old model of a grey-haired sage imparting knowledge to a talented but inexperienced protégé, says Anya Kamenetz, a senior writer at business magazine Fast Company. But the mentoring relationship is still distinct from other work or networking relationships, Kamenetz qualifies. "There are many people in your social network you might be friendly with. There are comparatively few people who will take on your interests as their own."
Indeed, evidence suggests that adoption of the mentee's interests is where mentoring has the biggest impact - and where women are most likely to lose out. A 2010 survey by the Harvard Business Review showed that while men and women had similar access to mentoring opportunities at work, men were twice as likely to have the kind of mentors - known as sponsors - who actively use their influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee.
The good news is that if you haven't yet found your perfect mentor, it might be an indication of strength rather than weakness. "If you can find someone who is a perfect match, then you're doing something that has been done before," says Jennifer Dziura, careers columnist at TheGrindstone.com. "If you can't find a perfect match, it means that you are an original."
In this instance, Dziura advises you use your imagination. "You might be able to cobble together a system of advisers. Or you could read the biography of a historical figure you admire. You don't need to have lunch with someone to learn from them."
And if you want to get really creative, take a leaf from Dziura's own book - she models her decisions on those of the character Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. "When I was growing up, I didn't have any family-friend connections - the only people I knew were my parents and teachers," Dziura explains. "So someone who piloted starships around the galaxy and made decisions about entering foreign worlds was a great role model for me."
From Sunday Life