During her many years in the fitness industry, Sonia Ricotti can count three true mentors in her career. They made such a big impact on her and her career that she still e-mails them to this day thanking them for guiding her. Now, Ricotti is paying back by being a mentor to others at her Toronto-area club, Sportsclubs of Canada/BTF, where she is general manager.

“The people who have been my mentor took the time to help develop me,” says Ricotti. “It wasn't always easy. Sometimes they said things that I didn't want to hear, but after I left their office, I realized it made sense and I appreciated it.”

Angela Broderick, president of Fit Careers in Kansas City, MO, has also had several mentors in her 20-year fitness career. From each mentor, she learned different things, but most importantly, she learned that a woman can be successful in her career and still uphold her personal values and ethics while helping people get fit.

“The advantage of having a good mentor is learning some of their secrets, which usually end up being simple things,” says Broderick.

A mentor is an experienced person who goes out of his or her way to help another person set goals and build the skills to reach them, says Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones, principal consultant for The Mentoring Group in Grass Valley, CA.

“The mentor has to do something special,” says Phillips-Jones. “He or she has to go out of their way to open a door.”

The person who benefits the most from a mentoring relationship is the protégé or “mentee,” the term The Mentoring Group uses for the person being mentored. The mentee learns more quickly with a mentor than by reading a book or taking a class. The confidence of the mentee also increases through the mentoring relationship. The protégé makes new contacts through the mentor, which expands their professional network and helps them gain even more knowledge.

However, the mentor also gains from a mentoring relationship. The mentor can learn new things from the mentee, who may be fresh out of school and willing to share their book knowledge.

“I really believe in the value of mentoring because it positions you as an expert,” Broderick says. “You can say that you know your stuff, but if you don't ever use it, no one ever believes you.”

Many mentors also mentor because it's satisfying and fun.

“There's nothing more fun than seeing a person blossom and be successful and know that you had a hand in that,” says Phillips-Jones.

Here are tips for developing a mentoring relationship:

  • Choose formal or informal

    Mentoring can be a formal or informal process put in place by a corporation, or it can be an informal process implemented by the two people involved.

    A more formal mentoring program will require an individual to match mentors with mentees and to train mentors and mentees on what they are to do (possibly using a workbook) and to keep track of the relationships. An informal program will still require a matchmaker and some minor training, but then will leave the relationship up to the two people involved.

    Ricotti's mentoring relationships are generally informal. She says that other than scheduling a regular time to meet, the program just involves sitting down and talking with the mentee and developing a level of trust so that the mentee is open to hearing what she has to say.

  • Mentor all, not one

    It's easier to set up a mentoring program at a large club or group of clubs than at a small club because larger clubs offer a bigger pool of mentors from which to pull. For smaller organizations, the solution may be to do a group mentoring program in which one mentor has more than one protégé. If not everyone is given the opportunity for a mentor, then resentment can build, says Phillips-Jones. Therefore, if group mentoring is not possible, then ensure that staff who aren't participating in a mentoring program on the first go-around know that they will be participating on the next round — and follow through with that. The club owner should be a mentor to everyone at his or her club, but not a formal mentor to just one person, unless it's the general manager. The general manager at a club with department heads may want to take on department heads as his or her mentees. However, department heads must be careful not to choose just one group instructor or personal trainer to mentor lest resentment builds among the remaining group.

  • Look outside

    Mentors can be anyplace inside or outside your club. Look for cross department mentoring within your club. If your club is small, you can call upon an industry association to help you find a person at another club who could mentor a staff member long distance or who could help you find someone who has retired from the business but still maintains a wealth of knowledge and contacts within the industry. Also, think about people who have mentored you in the past. Perhaps they will be willing to take on others or become your own mentor again.

  • Set goals

    The mentee should have goals in mind for the relationship. What does he or she want to get out of the relationship? What does the mentor want to pass on? The two should check in with each other on a regular basis (monthly or weekly) to ensure the goals are being met. However, the mentee is ultimately responsible for keeping the relationship going and setting up meetings since the mentor is the one volunteering his or her time.

  • Plan activities

    The mentor and mentee can participate in a variety of activities as part of the mentoring process just as long as the activities all help the mentee reach his or her goal. The activities can be as simple as talking together about past experiences, goals, plans and skills of the mentee or the mentor's career path and useful problem-solving strategies, according to The Mentoring Group's Web site. The two can also attend meetings, conferences and other events together allowing the mentee to meet and network with people known to the mentor. The two should discuss the event or conference afterward. The mentee may just shadow the mentor on occasion or they may role play certain scenarios that the mentee finds challenging. The mentor may also give the mentee materials to read and discuss the material with the mentee later. Another option is for the two to work together on an activity or co-author an article or publication.

  • Time is not an issue

    In a mentoring relationship, the main problem often is that one or both participants don't feel they have enough time and/or energy for the relationship. However, a good mentoring relationship can develop with as little time as one hour a month. You can meet once a month for an hour or once a week for 15 minutes here or there. One of the best ways to deal with time constraints is just to take your protégé with you to meetings or allow them to sit with you while you go over the schedule or financial plan. They can watch what you do and pattern their own skills after yours.

  • Control expectations

    Sometimes, mentees can have unrealistic expectations of a mentoring relationship. They may expect mentors to plan their professional life for them. Ensure that before the relationship begins, each individual expresses his or her expectations. Once that is done, the two parties can see where expectations may need to change on one or both sides in order for the relationship to be fulfilling for both parties.

  • Set a time limit

    While mentoring relationships can last a lifetime, it is best to set a limit of six months to one year for most formal mentoring relationships. A relationship of less than six months doesn't give the mentee enough time to learn and grow. A relationship of more than a year could lead the two people to tire of each other.

  • Schedule a closure meeting

    At the end of the time limit, the mentor and mentee should meet for a closure meeting. The closure meeting allows the two people to define what their relationship will be from then on. They can become friends, switch roles, go their separate ways or maintain a more informal mentoring relationship.