Fast Track: Will you be my buddy?

New job? New company? Nervous? That's understandable. What you need to guide you through the the workplace is a friendly corporate mentor. By Helena Pozniak
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The Independent Culture
New suit, shiny shoes and timid smile. It's amazing how vividly the memories of your first day at school can come flooding back at the start of a career. Mercifully, when I was the new grad on the block, a senior editor took pity on me. "Be more confident," she said. "If you can do something, say so." Kindly, challenging, unthreatening - she was the perfect mentor, albeit unofficial. Weeks later, another old hand advised me to "get a patron - it's the only way to get on".

Try to define mentoring - whether or not it's officially administered - and it's easier to say what it's not. It's a one-to-one relationship, usually between a senior and a junior employee, but it isn't training, it isn't coaching, and it isn't necessarily even a friendship.

"It's not a deep science," explains Michael Robson, who is setting up a mentoring network in south-east England. "It has a lot to do with chemistry. Mentors are "people" people - the ones you'd like to have lunch with."

For graduates, mentoring is like an accelerated course, from a corporate godparent, in the business rules you don't find in the textbooks. They'll advise you on the ins and outs of all the office politics and, if they're good, they'll be a sounding-board, a release valve for your tension. In an ideal graduate world, your mentor will be your role model, your confidante - and so, perhaps not surprisingly, research shows that the relationship will work best if you are relatively close in age, and also outside the mentor's direct line of command.

For the graduate setting foot in a firm for the first time ever, an approachable, experienced voice can be a godsend, preventing the kind of gaffes that can blight even the most promising of new careers. If that relationship is encouraged, and even arranged by the organisation, even better.

"You arrive with a set of skills, but no real business experience," stresses Jonathan Wilson, a consultant and mentor. "But there are different rules, and ways of coping."

There's no doubting the enthusiasm of Martin Wells, a 23-year-old Asda graduate recruit. He's momentarily stumped for words when I ask him what he has learnt from Luke, his 32-year-old "buddy", since he joined the company in 1997. "Loads - everything. So much that you can't write down or read about in books. What happens when you have to discipline a colleague you like? What happens when you lose it in public? I was so worried I would get it wrong and make a cock-up."

Asda - like an increasing number of other large corporations - has spent several years tailoring the mentoring process to suit its own requirements. Here, you get to choose your own "buddy", who stays with you for six months, and if the relationship is unsuccessful, he or she may be swapped.

The rest is up to you, and according to Mark Betts, a recruitment manager, meetings are frequent. "Graduates may take on responsibility for pounds 15m of business in as little as six months - they need support." In fact, Martin Wells says he would now think very carefully indeed before joining a company without a mentoring network.

But not everyone is so positive. Sceptics from traditional companies allege that mentoring reflects the worse side of American corporate culture, defined by suspicious buzz-words such as "organic" and "proactive". And it's hard to quantify the benefits, since there are no quick fixes or measurable financial rewards. In any case, add the most scathing of cynics, why offer pearls of wisdom to recruits who gobble them up and quit within two years of cutting their corporate teeth?

Even mentors, such as Jonathan Wilson, have their concerns. Mentoring, he says, is an old concept repackaged as new - and consequently can go horribly wrong. Too rigorously enforced and it becomes mechanistic and tedious. Too lax, and the mentor and protege fail to make the effort or reap the rewards. There must be a rapport in which both mentor and protege can bounce off each other, he concludes.

In fact, all too many companies make the mistake of mismatching. David Clutterbuck, who runs a mentoring training organisation, remembers one colleague who, as a junior employee, was inappropriately paired with a senior director: "The director would call him into the office, talk at him for half an hour, then end up saying, `Well I hope you found that useful.' Quite hopeless." But he is quick to point out that, when it's right, "A scheme of mentoring helps to keep graduates on the cliff when large numbers are dropping off. Research shows it's a key attraction for graduates. It alone won't bring them in, but it could swing the balance."

At worst, mentoring can become a short cut to networking, pulling strings, and exploiting the "old boy" network. "But that isn't true mentoring," declares Jonathan Wilson. "You have to be tough, and resist the temptation to intervene, even when, with one call, you could solve a situation."

Most mentors admit to a difference of approach between male and female employees. Companies have fewer women mentors at senior levels - because there are fewer senior women. But in giving advice, women are acknowledged to have an upper hand and feature strongly in public-sector mentoring schemes. "Women communicate in a feminine way - here's some advice I'm offering, don't feel obliged to take it," says Jonathan Wilson. They are superior in receiving advice, adds David Clutterbuck: "Women are more prepared to listen, more introspective. Men exaggerate their abilities and are probably less likely to take advice on board." Irrespective of gender, however, studies show that mentoring relationships shouldn't exceed two years, when it may be time to mature to a more senior and challenging partner.

Whether an official scheme or a natural process, mentoring now takes place in most professional arenas - and it may not be too long before you become a mentor yourself. If you believe David Clutterbuck, it's a genetically programmed impulse to unload the wisdom of your generation to the next: "It's a very strong basic instinct - communication for racial survival," he says. The trick is knowing how to control that flow of information so that the recipient benefits. "In other words, when to shut up."