NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The term "mentor" goes all the way back to Greek mythology, when Mentor, whom some historians said was the goddess Athena in disguise, was sent by Odysseus to watch over his son, Telemachus, during the Trojan war.

Now mentoring is a huge theme in the battlefield of the workplace. In fact, the American Society for Training and Development says that 75% of executives link their career progress to mentoring.

Wake Forest University's Allison McWilliams, who has made a career out of studying mentoring, says there's even more to it.

While mentoring is a strong, positive force in the workplace and in entrepreneurship, McWilliams says, quantity as well as quality is key for professionals looking for solid career guidance.

"A mentoring network can help you across many areas of your life," McWilliams says. "It's not uncommon to have a mentor for different aspects of your professional life, and for your physical or spiritual life too."

Mentors can help by asking useful, probing questions, providing quality feedback and helping you meet your goals.

"Mentors push us to explore our personal values and beliefs," McWilliams says. "They help us discover who we are and how we find meaning."

McWilliams advises using formal mentorship programs (most large companies already have them, as do industry associations and even local Chamber of Commerce offices.)

But mentorships can be explored informally as well. "It's a relationship that goes beyond networking or informational interviews," McWilliams says. "If there is someone whose advice you seek for difficult decisions or whose guidance you always trust, chances are these people are your informal mentors."

What should you look for in a mentor? Here's a short list from McWilliams:
  • Mentors should be able to meet with you regularly.
  • They should practice "active listening" -- listening without being distracted.
  • They should ask "thoughtful" questions. "Mentoring conversations are built around four key questions," she says. "Where are you now? Where do you want to be? How do you plan to get there? What happened?"
  • They should be objective. "A mentor should make it a safe space for mentees to take risks," she says. "Sometimes that means taking a wrong turn or falling down. It's not the mentor's job to prevent these bumps in the road; sometimes the best learning happens when we don't succeed. A mentor should make sure those learning moments aren't missed."

Mentorships don't last forever, McWilliams says. The best ones "celebrate your successes and bring the relationship to closure at the right time."

When that happens, use your career and life lessons to find a new mentor. After all, it's never too late to stop learning.