(CareerBuilder.com) -- "I met my mentor before I knew what a mentor was or that I would ever need one," says Debra Yergen of Yakima, Washington.
Fresh out of college and conducting an interview at a hotel in Seattle as a freelance journalist, Yergen "just connected" with the establishment's public relations director. By the end of the day, the woman asked if Yergen would like to have her as a mentor. Yergen agreed, wanting to be cordial, but "had no idea what this meant."
What it turned out to mean was a 15-year relationship during which Yergen's mentor gently guided, inspired, opened doors and offered introductions. "Over the years, she taught me more than I learned in any one college course or in any one job. She was my lighthouse through every professional opportunity and storm," Yergen says.
While a person doesn't absolutely need a mentor, workers who have found one are often glad they did.
What a mentor can offer
Elizabeth Freedman, author of "Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace Without Hanging Yourself" and "The MBA Student's Job-Seeking Bible," says that some of the possible benefits of having a mentor include:
Shortening your career learning curve: Most of us opt to work with mentors who have been around the block a few more times than we have, and this is a smart idea. When we work with someone who has more industry knowledge and expertise, or simply knows the ropes better than we do, we're giving ourselves (and our careers) tremendous advantage.
Improving your network of contacts: Picture everyone in your Outlook folder or contact file -- and now double it. That's what working with a mentor can do to the number of professional relationships, sales leads or other contacts in your life.
Telling you what nobody else will: A good mentor won't hold back. This isn't to suggest you want to work with a mentor who is overly critical or harsh when it comes to giving feedback, but a successful relationship will provide you with honest advice and candid opinions.
Where to find one
While there are cases like Yergen's where an established worker clearly offers to serve as a mentor, the relationship often develops more informally within the workplace.
Drew Tarvin of New York City, who works in information technology project management in the consumer goods industry, met the person destined to be his mentor while serving an internship.
"He was my manager when I was an intern. After getting hired full time and switching managers, it seemed natural to still talk to him on some frequency," Tarvin says. "Since then, our conversations have evolved not just to discussions in our certain area but career guidance, handling the political environment and work/life balance.
Professional associations, alumni gatherings and industry events are also good places to find potential mentors. Annette Pelliccio, founder of The Happy Gardener, and organic garden and lawn care company, met her mentor four years ago at a direct-selling convention. Nowadays, she says, "My company probably would be nonexistent without him."
In today's tech-savvy world, some find mentors via LinkedIn, Brightfuse and other business/social groups. During a time of unemployment, Pamela Bodley went online searching for information on how to be a good leader and came across a website that spoke to exactly what she needed.
"I contacted the leadership expert who wrote the site, explained my situation and asked if he would mentor me," Bodley recalls. "Now, five months later, we speak every week or two on specific business topics, and I have been learning great concepts, skills and techniques."
Building the relationship
While directly asking someone to be your mentor can work, Freedman cautions that sometimes it is best to avoid labels, go slow and let the relationship grow. "Even if getting a mentor is what you're going for, remember that the relationship is a two-way street, and like you, your mentor is probably reluctant to spend his limited free time on someone who isn't right for him."
She suggests instead identifying who has the kind of career you'd like, who seems approachable and who is able to spend some time with you. Then, once you've found a good candidate, "Reach out: 'John, would you have a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee? I'd love to learn more about your work and how you've been successful within the company.'"
It might be the most worthwhile coffee break of your career.
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