Professional guidance and support aren’t always easy to come by when you are beginning the process of building a career. But a dynamic and supportive mentoring relationship that works the way it should can be invaluable to your success. When such support is absent, your career path and business-building can be much more difficult – and take much longer.

But finding the right person to act as your mentor – and, for you, the mentored person, to know how to live up to your mentor’s expectations – can be challenging. Indeed, many people who seek a mentor are never successful.

This struggle to connect with the right mentor is what motivated Anne Day to launch Company of Women in 2003, an organization that connects women who are running their own businesses. The group has four chapters that operate in and around Toronto and a website with extensive resources. At the time that Day founded Company of Women, she was working from home and was feeling isolated; she wanted to speak to other women in similar circumstances, but had no idea how to go about doing so.

Company of Women offers its members a variety of opportunities to develop meaningful, mentoring relationships. “There’s some real benefit to hearing from other women who have been there,” Day says. “You find out you’re not alone.”

This informal approach – encouraging members to get together for dinners, workshops and events, and to build relationships with their peers – works for many women because, as with the best business relationships, interpersonal chemistry is vital to successful mentoring.

That’s not to say that formal mentoring programs aren’t beneficial. Day has been a formal mentor on a number of occasions through programs set up by industry associations and says they can be very useful. However, lack of understanding about the purposes and goals of mentoring can undermine the process. Day points to one instance in which a woman assigned to her simply wanted Day to complete her writing projects for her, because English was not her first language. That is not what mentoring should be about, Day says.

To get the mentoring process started, try inviting a peer or colleague for coffee or a lunchtime walk to initiate the idea of creating a mentoring relationship. Some industry associations and companies support or sponsor mentoring programs. There also are a growing number of organizations that exist specifically to serve women in this capacity, offering networking and learning events that cater to women in business and, in some cases, formal mentoring programs also are offered.

Leah DiRenzo, director of mentoring programs for consultants Women’s Executive Network (WXN), based in Toronto (and available to women across Canada), says mentoring relationships can be invaluable. And, while women don’t necessarily have to work only with other women as mentors, doing so can provide assistance on issues with which men may be less familiar.

Says DiRenzo: “You get a different perspective. You can talk about working in male-dominated industries, you can talk about the fear of having kids and what’s going to happen next. Men will provide great suggestions, but women who have lived [the same experiences] might give better ones.”

WXN offers a formal mentoring program, paid for by the mentored person, that takes place over the course of a year and includes several classroom sessions to ensure that each client is gleaning as much as she can from the mentor assigned to her by WXN.

Formal or informal, here are some tips to ensure that a mentoring relationship runs smoothly for both the mentor and the person being mentored:

Know yourself

Day describes her mentoring style as “nurturing.” But while this approach can work wonders for a certain type of person, it can be crippling for those who have difficulties with self-confidence or decision-making.

In fact, Day has found herself stuck in limbo trying to help someone who just cannot seem to move to the next level. Day has a friend, meanwhile, who also mentors, but uses more of a “tough cookie” approach, dropping anyone who doesn’t make the deadlines upon which they’ve both previously agreed. If you are seeking a mentor, it’s best to know the type of person toward whom you tend to gravitate and what kind of learning style you prefer before seeking help from a peer or someone in a more senior position.

Set boundaries

The only way to ensure that the relationship isn’t soured by bad mojo is to lay out some ground rules right from the beginning, says Day. Issues such as how much time should be put aside for the relationship and what is appropriate in terms of communication (both parties need to outline their preferred mode of communication and frequency of contact) should be discussed and agreed upon.

While formal programs do this for you and allow both parties to ask organizers for assistance if something isn’t working for either person, informal relationships might need a dose of tough love now and again.

Be open

Too often, says DiRenzo, someone seeking a mentor has ideas fermenting in her brain for so long that she’ll come at the mentor with preconceived notions of what will work and what won’t.

You may feel that you already have a certain level of expertise – that’s only natural, given that you are pursuing your chosen career path. But a lack of flexibility about your approach to your career could work against you and create some tension in the mentoring relationship, which could cause it to be less effective.

“Your mentor is probably going to suggest things you hadn’t even thought of,” DiRenzo says. “Be open to all suggestions.”

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