At times, the workplace "cafeteria" resembles a middle-school lunchroom, with heightened stakes and competitors striving for power in lieu of popularity. Who sits where, and why?

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It's all rather intimidating. But engaging with the top of the food chain, or “managing up,” in your own company or industry is easier when someone trustworthy and approachable forges a trail first. For some professionals, this means engaging a mentor.

Before pursuing that relationship, however, confirm that your potential mentor is the master of his or her trade, with a great reputation, a proven record of success and a powerful, credible brand. The strongest mentors are fearless communicators with access to the power base of an organization. They’re visible to everyone, including the CEO. With connections to major influencers, a mentor can open doors to relationships and experiences that likely wouldn’t be possible otherwise -- or would take years to develop.

Steve Jobs, a perfect example of this type of leader, was one of a handful of influential mentors for me. Although we didn’t seek each other out and came together by chance, Jobs, as a well-known innovator, greatly assisted me throughout my career.

Making the first move

An experienced mentor can help navigate political land mines by serving as a role model and sounding board to support a mentee’s success. Here are three tips for finding the right one:

  • Take advantage of an open door -- or “open seat” -- policy. When I worked at Apple, former CEO John Sculley made himself available at an open table in our cafeteria. Most people gave him a wide berth out of fear, but I wasn’t afraid to sit down and chat with him often. When Apple offered to cover the tuition for a two-and-a-half year MBA program, I was one of about 100 people chosen because my manager pulled out all the stops on my behalf. Sculley had the final say on who was chosen, which is one reason I sat down at his table -- to thank him -- and I still reach out to him today.
  • Be direct. Mentors sometimes choose protégés, but usually a person must be bold enough to approach an admired senior colleague and say, “I need a mentor, and I’d like it to be you.” High-level professionals don’t have time for beating around the bush. Be direct.
  • Seek out different -- and seemingly contradictory -- qualities in mentors. I’ve been fortunate to build mentoring bonds with not only Steve Jobs, but also consultant and speaker Alan Weiss and writer Alan Cohen. I consider Weiss and Cohen my bookend mentors; together, they deeply inform the way I work and live, and how I serve my clients.

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Vetting a potential mentor involves listening to your gut reaction. After each interaction, note any emerging patterns and how the exchange felt. If your experience gives you a positive impression that this partnership could be mutually beneficial, chances are it will be a good fit.

Both Alans provide distinct kinds of support and help me tap into contrasting parts of my personality. While Cohen has taught me how to get in touch with my softer side and shown me how to help others see the best in themselves by identifying their strengths, Weiss has taught me how to reinforce my brand. With his guidance, I've sought to be a thought leader in my field, by creating a body of intellectual property with a unique voice.

These dynamic and complementary philosophies have helped me build a solid foundation for my work and define my career trajectory. Developing a positive mentor relationship that pushes you to grow outside your comfort zone can propel you forward, too, ensuring that you thrive -- not merely survive -- in the workplace cafeteria.

The weeding-out process in the workplace can unfold like an episode of Survivor. Hang out with the wrong crowd or miss critical unspoken cues and you risk getting voted off the company island. But the right mentor can offer a “path to immunity” and a faster track to success, to achieve the dreams that might otherwise dissipate amid self-doubt and cafeteria politics.

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