In the real world, a lot of people can’t afford a coach. And, in demanding times, we all need as much "backup" as we can get. One of the best ways for you to get that is finding a mentor.

"I think my mentor is one of the key reasons for my continued success, despite all the other things going on. And what she has shown me during our time together would have taken me years to figure out on my own."

That comment was in reply to a question I'd posed to an individual who's been very successful working in an organization that's known for being very difficult to move into from the "outside".

I'm a big advocate of mentors. If more people took on this role, there may be less work for some coaches, but generally speaking I think the activities of each are different:

- Coaches are trained to help clients move forward successfully. Often, they'll provide a perspective that others internally simply cannot.

- Mentors are usually experts in the field or a particular organization. They know a lot about how to succeed in a given environment and "who's who".

Both individuals provide real benefit. They can help you get things done more quickly, often with less energy. And, in a difficult economic climate, they may be able to help you move forward when others are being moved out.

Here are 5 ways to go about getting a mentor - and what to look for:

1. Look for a living Rosetta Stone - If you're new, or in a newly promoted role, a lot of what's said and done may not make a lot of sense. And while you're trying to understand what's important and what's just "noise", you aren't moving ahead. You want someone who knows how to translate what's going on and help you understand the next steps required.

2. Choose experience over nice - Your mentor should have a lot of experience within the organization, the company, the field, or the community. Your needs will vary but, like my client's mentor above, you'll really benefit if you choose someone who knows the history and what is "appropriate". Many newbies come in and start doing things that others have seen fail in the past. Learning on the job can take longer than is available.

3. Like any important relationship, you want commitment - When you have someone who's genuinely committed to being your mentor, they'll give you time and want to see you succeed. (Obviously you don't want someone who may compete with you at any stage.)

A solid mentor will praise you for good stuff and in many companies praise of any nature is doled out like Scrooge's Christmas Pudding. So having a mentor reinforcing your successes is particularly replenishing.

In the same vein a good mentor will tell you when you've screwed up. We learn from our screw-ups but in many of today's passive/aggressive organizations, we never hear honest feedback about them and often repeat the problem as a result.

4. Male or female? Some people feel more comfortable with one gender over the other, but I haven't seen greater success if the parties are the same gender or the opposite.

I still hear from female clients that some of the senior women in their organization exhibit an attitude kind of like, “Listen I busted by back to get here and nobody helped me; so it's up to you to make it on your own too." This counterproductive attitude is unfortunate; especially when women fill less than 20% of our top leadership roles in Fortune 500 companies.

Gender balance has been proven to improve the bottom line - we need more women in the big roles.

5. Recognize boundaries - In certain relationships, especially in the case of formal mentoring programs sponsored by your company, there may be times when you can't share information with the other person. For example: promotions or terminations that could impact the "partner" in the relationship. It's important to know what's what.

Finally, I note that even CEO's can and should use mentors. This is not for just those in the early stages of their careers.

Regardless of what level you're at, having a mentor can be one of the best ways to ensure you’re on the right path and making the right choices. Go for it.