We never stop needing role models.

That notion has been around since forever, and it's just as true today as it was in ancient Greece. In mythology, Mentor was a friend of the Greek king of Ithaca, Odysseus, who was known as Ulysses in Latin. When Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, needed to drop a hint to Odysseus, she would take the form of Mentor to do it.

Mentoring, as we know it, is hardly mythology. It is a time-honored tradition of helping the next generation of leaders reach their potential.

January is National Mentoring Month, the perfect time to show that we care with the knowledge that we share. Mentoring is a win-win situation. Just remember to be a mentor, not a tormentor.

To mentor effectively, we have to command more than just technical expertise. We also have to master the principles of human nature. We have to be able to detect what makes people tick and what unique capabilities they have.

When I enrolled at the University of Minnesota, professor Harold Deutsch was my academic adviser. He played a role in helping me mature. I took Prof. Deutsch's class on the history of World War II. He had been one of the interpreters at the Nuremberg trials. To say he made history come alive would be an understatement. He did not teach history; he was part of history. He was a wonderful mentor to me and made me realize how important it is for everyone to have a mentor in life.

Deutsch and my golf coach at the University of Minnesota, Les Bolstad, were both great mentors. They taught me how to stay focused and to set realistic goals. They also taught me the art of persuasion, leadership and visualization. A mentor will often help shape fine distinctions in the mind of the protégé or mentee. These are refinements that the mentee couldn't even imagine beforehand.

I've learned from multiple mentors throughout my career. Fortunately, I've been able to select mentors at various times as I have advanced. The following list of seven criteria has been useful in helping me do so:

1. What major leadership or business trades are my foremost business shortcomings right now?

2. What networking voids do I have and who could mentor me to overcome them?

3. Who has a basic chemistry compatible with mine, but is playing the game I'd like to play one or two levels higher?

4. Who has the skill set and success level I'd like to enjoy five years from now?

5. Who is very much like me, but seems to have an easy time doing what I find hard to do?

6. Who has a powerful need to teach what I need to learn?

7. What can I offer a potential mentor in exchange for their dedication, time and trust?

On the other side of the desk, being a mentor is a tremendous responsibility, as well as an opportunity to return the favor to those who have pulled you along. Mentors push people toward the broader, bigger goals.

I've been asked, "What do I get out of mentoring?" There's the enormous satisfaction of helping others, but there's also the test of sizing people up quickly. How sharp is your eye for talent? How could this person help build my network in an important way? Can I cross-link this individual to others in my network, so that the connections benefit everyone involved? Could this individual give me valuable, personalized intelligence about a company or sector of the market?

As successful business leaders, we owe it to the next generation to help them achieve their full potential. It's a privilege. Don't take it lightly.

Mackay's Moral: A mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.