Tony Blair wants them for unemployed teenagers, top executives for themselves. A mentor can help you cope with your job - and prepare for the next one

THE WORD "mentor" is everywhere these days. It sounds solid, like a word out of Shakespeare. In fact it entered the English language in a letter from Lord Chesterfield to his son in 1750; he took it from Homer's Mentor, who guided Odysseus and Telemachus.

In 1998, the word calls up the homely image of a wise, kindly, older person. Suddenly mentors are key figures at opposite ends of society: among the young unemployed and at the executive end of big business.

The Government has adopted the idea in a huge way. The announcement of Tony Blair's New Deal for the unemployed last year had so many references to "trainers" it sounded like two young people talking about Nike Air- Max. The New Deal set out to turn 18-24-year-olds who have been unemployed for more than six months into the confidently employed. The idea was that they would go to a Gateway (the New Deal's improved Job Centre and assessment centre) where they would be assigned a personal adviser - a type of mentor. It would then be decided whether or not they needed training and perhaps allocating someone actually called a mentor.

In the recent Budget, pounds l00m was given to extend the New Deal to over- 25-year-olds, which will happen from November, and 18-24-year-olds got an extra pounds 50m which "will fund a New Deal mentoring service, offering the support of trained volunteer mentors to up to l00,000 young people over the life of this Parliament", to quote Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett. On 6 April the New Deal starts across the whole country.

AT THE other end of the employment scale, top executives are going to an "executive coach". Why? Because their staff may dislike them, or they are at loggerheads with another executive, or they have no time to think, or they cannot handle meetings. "When people stayed in a job, you could trust people you were working with and consult them," said one woman partner. "Now you can't."

The Institute of Directors started testing a mentor executive scheme for their members and others 18 months ago and launched it in January with five full-time staff and about 12 mentors, directed by Richard Joyce. He expected mainly male clients, but it hasn't turned out like that. There is no gender slant - such as that women should mentor women - in executive coaching firms: mentors are chosen to bring in different experience and personalities to try to find a match with clients.

The usual practice for these firms is that the businessman or woman goes to meet the mentor in special rooms at the firm's premises (plants, pictures, no telephones ringing). The contract is for a year, two hours a month, but the clients decide when they want to use the service. The charge is usually 10 per cent of salary, or between pounds 10,000 and pounds 25,000. The firm pays, and is glad to, because difficulties are ironed out and the executive is happy. Occasionally the mentor will advise the executive that the best course is to leave - a mentor is always on the client's side, say mentors.

All mentors stress confidentiality. At the IoD, clients' notes are not put into the computer but kept on paper in locked files in the Pall Mall office.Mr Joyce says: "The company that realises that its people are the only sustainable resource has an advantage."

Stephen Jobs of AppleMac spends 40 per cent of his time as chief executive recruiting and developing people. "To develop people you need good leaders," he says. He wouldn't say whom he had mentored: "a bunch of public limited companies have very approachable chief executives who always have time. Good time management. If you have an open-door policy, it should start late, say 5pm. Having an open door in the morning brings in all the minor problems which are forgotten by five."

Jane Whistler, mother of five and psychotherapy-trained, has her own mentoring and short-term counselling practice. She does some work for the IoD. She says: "I think I can encourage self-belief. With changing employment patterns, individuals are usually shocked when the expertise they rely on seems to dissipate, or relationships turn hostile."

She trained in what is known as conflict-resolution. "I find if people learn about anger and how to deal with it they become more comfortable with change." She is also mentor to a group of doctors. "Doctors need space for reflection. They are often isolated and overworked and under ethical pressures. Taking care of themselves will help them take care of others."

The interaction between mentor and learner is almost always happy. A good mentor has many of the same qualities as a counsellor. Yet mentoring is not seen by people as intrusive or jiggery-pokery, as counselling often is. Meg Lustman is 35, married, and in charge of international development at Wallis, a division of Sears. She believes absolutely in mentoring. She started going to Peter Hogarth of Change Partnership, in Piccadilly, four years ago when the chief executive of Sears was Liam Strong, who believed in "the learning organisation", a term in common use in human resources departments. "If you want to get the best out of people you give them the space to develop and to try things," Ms Lustman said. "Several of the senior staff were invited to be coached. Peter Hogarth is very experienced and objective, and in this safe place you can admit your weakness and fears. He can challenge you and really make sure you are acting in your own best interests and acting with integrity - you can get confused. He was a great rock to me, frankly."

She and the others who had been coached used the techniques to coach junior staff in Sears.

Everyone in the field agrees that it was the executive coaching firm Gardiner-Hill Needham, now GHN, that started the idea of business mentoring. Peter Gardiner-Hill, one of the firm's founders, saw the role as akin to that of golf pro to an amateur, while Peter Needham saw it as music coach to Kiri te Kanawa. They launched in 1981, and now turn over between pounds 1.5m and pounds 2m a year. Mr Gardiner-Hill says: "It was clear that everyone would have four or five employers, two or three careers, self-employment and pluralism, in an increasingly complex world. It was no good senior management thinking, 'I've got there'. What was needed was Me Plc. Self- management, relationship management, decision-making management."

"It's all about working with clients so they can be unambiguously confrontational but in an acceptable way," says Mr Needham. "Someone told me that homo sapiens learns exponentially more from his or her own voice than any other voice," so he tapes all sessions and gives the tapes to clients if they want to hear themselves arguing with him. He started the Hanover Foundation, a charity, to mentor 16-25-year-olds. 'There's no mentoring for parenthood, though it's so difficult and important. I think it's coming," he says.

Joan Christmas, now at outplacement (job search after redundancy) consultants Sanders & Sidney, was mentored by Mr Needham by telephone when she worked in Liverpool. "As the first and only female director of Littlewoods stores I felt very isolated," she said. "Having a mentor who understood me and my situation and who could give me impartial advice was quite simply a lifesaver."

THE voluntary organisations such as the Education Business Partnerships (set up under the Conservatives) and Business in the Community (Prince Charles is involved) do a lot of mentoring, in schools and elsewhere. Mike Tyler of Tower Hamlets EBP runs the mentoring of pupils and of school heads. He persuades senior people in organisations such as Unilever to come once a month for two hours to give young people a sympathetic ear (and an example of punctuality and suit-wearing) and to give school heads business help, now that they're running businesses. What qualifies someone as a mentor? "Common sense, and time commitment," Mr Tyler says. "Consistency is the message." He has won the contract for the New Deal monitoring for Tower Hamlets, so is setting out again to bang on doors to find volunteers. The Government pays him pounds 120 for each New Dealer to be mentored.

The voluntary organisers, sustained by idealism, think organisations such as the IoD are jumping on a very big bandwagon emblazoned Mentor, and say that dozens of local initiatives have been quietly spreading the use of mentors, and other ways of forming links, in recognition of the ever-learning society we now live in and the need to get together and defeat isolation - an isolation that big business aggravates with its centralising and shrinking cores. Many people would say they already have a mentor: their husband, wife, partner, sensible friend or someone else wise. But if a mentor "feels right", as the professional mentors put it, then he or she probably is right.