Some of the most important things you need to learn about a professional career will never be taught in a classroom or in the training that your future employer may provide. While it is extremely important to be competent at what you do, being good isn't enough when it comes to navigating the politics and culture of an organization. A mentor, typically a seasoned professional who has had experience in the role that you currently hold and has achieved higher positions, can help you in many ways.
Insider Information - My company recently went through layoffs and then filed for bankruptcy. The workforce was aware, but had very little information regarding the direction the company was heading. Having someone in a key position who has more insight into the strategic direction of a company can be invaluable. In my particular situation, it was information that could help me make a personal decision regarding a new job search, or waiting to see if there would be favorable retention opportunities.
Knowing the Players - Like any good presenter will tell you, you have to vary your presentation to meet the needs of your audience. An individual may have a great idea for a new process, or product, but if they don't know how to sell it, that idea will never come to fruition. A mentor can help you identify the decision makers in an organization and will be able to help you tailor your message to meet their specific needs. I always took infinite care in doing my research and validating my conclusions when it came to making technology decisions. It was my mentor who pointed out to me that sometimes my customers needed quick, reasonable answers, not perfect ones. Altering my approach on those occasions resulted in much happier customers and less stress on me.
Career Assistance - A mentor can advise you on the right opportunities to round out your skills or to help you prepare for a future position. But frequently, they can also make you aware of job openings you may never have known about until they were filled. Very few people realize how often a job gets posted with someone already in mind for the position. These are posted to meet a legal requirement, not because they are actually looking for someone new to apply. Mentors can recommend you for positions that become available, or put you in touch with the hiring managers to give you a leg up on the opening.
Unbiased Opinions - Mentors can exist outside of your own organization. And because of this, can provide unique insight and advice without having a personal agenda. As a manager, you always have to balance what is in the best interest of the company and what's in the best interest of the employee. These are not always the same things. A mentor can speak frankly about what they think is best for you and your career without any such conflict.
A mentor doesn't always have to be someone who has been in the same role. You might also look for a mentor who shares a common personal background, perhaps a working mother who has risen to the executive levels, or someone who has a military background, or who went back to school later in life. The important thing is to find someone you admire and respect and to ask them if they would assist you in attaining your career goals. It may take awhile to find the right person, but don't despair. Like any good relationship, finding the right one is worth the wait.