10/22/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Seeking a Powerful Mentor? You May Find Her Close to Home

For Women & Co. by Erin Rooney Doland,

You probably know that finding a good mentor can help you navigate your career path and guide you to success. Some companies assign mentors to employees, while others merely offer platitudes about why they're such a good idea -- but give little direction on how to actually find one. In fact, according to LinkedIn and Citi's first-ever study of professional women's biggest financial and career concerns, finding a mentor ranked among the top three work-related challenges for women.

I've always landed in that group of working women "seeking a mentor," and yet I've never found one in my professional circles. Instead, I've come to rely heavily on peer mastermind groups as well as something perhaps a bit unexpected: I've turned to women in my family for inspiration, career guidance and business counsel.

Take my paternal grandmother, for example. She was born in 1909 and grew up on a farm in northeast Kansas. She liked the wide-open space, knowing all her neighbors and caring for a farm, but she also dreamed of going to the city and making it on her own. So after high school graduation, she went to Topeka to attend business college. After graduating from business college in the early 1930s, she got a job and saved her money. She splurged only once a week, when she would buy herself a piece of fine silverware from the local jewelry store.

My grandmother didn't get married until she was 30, and she didn't start having children -- a set of twin boys -- until she was 35. She once told me that she was ridiculed by family and friends for building a career and waiting to get married at a time when most women didn't, but she said the path she took was the one she wanted. She worked in the state legislature for decades, and for more than 60 years she also --remarkably -- ran the business of the farm she was given as a wedding present by my great-grandparents.

When she died last year at age 102, I mourned the loss of such an important woman in my life, but I also was comforted knowing she lived more than a century on her terms. She inspired me to be independent and taught me how to run a successful business with my brain and my heart. The immersed career I have now is built directly on the advice she gave to me, modeled on how she ran the farm.

My living aunt, my grandmother's youngest daughter, inherited my grandmother's independent streak. In 1976, when she was in her mid-20's, she went on an expedition from Great Britain to South Africa in two overland trucks with 40 other people. When they arrived in Tanzania, half the group went to the beach for a few days and the other half decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. She made it up the mountain to Gilman's Point, technically the top of the mountain, just meters shy of getting to the Uhuru Summit (the absolute highest point of the mountain that few trekkers reach).

"I thought I was in great shape," she recalled. "I ran with two other guys every morning to increase my stamina, but I found out that altitude sickness has nothing to do with fitness. There were only two people in our group who made it all the way to Uhuru. I was sick starting the night before the final ascent -- I had a horrible headache, was sick to my stomach and really couldn't put my head flat to rest. I continue to this day to be bothered by high altitude... the two guys who made it were both smokers... Go figure."

My aunt has taught me that it's important to take the path less traveled, even if it may be harder. She's also shown me that there will always be someone who can go farther or climb higher, but their actions shouldn't prevent me from doing something truly fantastic.

If you're like me and have difficulty finding a mentor in your chosen profession, consider looking to trusted friends in different professions -- and don't overlook your family tree. Good counsel is valuable, even if it comes from someone who shares your last name.

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