It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. Nowhere is that adage more apt than when advancing a career in bakery and snack production.

“Our baking industry has a guild-type history,” Doris Zelinsky said. “We concentrate our training and communications on the ‘hard’ skills, technical expertise and mastery of creating bakery products.” To fill in the gaps, mentoring is crucial.

“For example, these might be cuing in to the unwritten rules of the workplace, injecting original thinking and harnessing employee engagement and productivity.” she said.

Ms. Zelinsky’s baking career includes 15 years at Lender’s Bagels, New Haven, CT, both working for the family business and later when it became part of the Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL, stable. She started on the manufacturing side and left as vice-president, operations, when the business sold around $200 million in products annually.

During the next decade, Ms. Zelinsky served as COO for Country Home Bakers, Shelton, CT, a family supplier of cookies, pies, breads and rolls for in-store bakeries and food service in the US and UK. For the past eight years, she has been a consultant to bakery and food businesses whose annual sales range from $25 million to billions.

“No matter how masterfully a baker perfects her baking through classroom training and on-the-job baking, it is mentoring that will provide her the vitally needed job skills to overcome and grow through failures and to avoid behaviors that will drive her career off the rails,” she said.

Having been introduced to the idea of mentoring in the first graduating class of women at Yale College, Ms. Zelinsky offered her advice on the subject to Baking & Snack readers in this exclusive interview.

Baking & Snack: What have you learned from a mentor that you couldn’t have learned from a class or on the job?

Doris Zelinsky: The most important lesson I learned from a mentor is to understand the times when I should not be the problem solver and instead be the catalyst for problem solving.

It’s a skill I have drawn on often in my career: at family-owned Lenders Bagels and Country Home Bakers and at food giant Kraft Foods. Today, it serves me equally well as I participate as a member of several boards of food companies and consult with bakery and other food industry players.

Should a baker look for a mentor in her own company? How else might she find others in the industry who can help with her career?

In my experience, mentoring is most effective when the mentor and the protégé work for the same company. That’s for two reasons. First, a more seasoned player in the baker’s company will know both the stated and the unwritten rules of the company’s workplace. Some of these rules can surprise a newcomer in that they are unspoken and unique to a company, and the balance of each of these rules differs among companies.

If the baker only can guess at how weighty a rule might be in terms of propelling or breaking his career trajectory in his new company, he will be taking a huge risk with his own career. A mentor can provide the critical know-how.

Second, the best results for a baker are for his mentor to turn into a sponsor, moving from guidance to advocacy. That can only happen if both the baker and his mentor work for the same company.

And how powerful is a sponsorship relationship? The October Harvard Business Review has a wonderful piece by Sylvia Hewlett on how effective this relationship can be for both the sponsor and the protégé. To capture just one sentence from this article: “A good sponsor will coach you on your performance and train a spotlight on you so that everyone takes note of your abilities and potential.”

Does mentorship tend to be more successful or prevalent in large companies or small? Why?

Some large companies have well-structured and long-standing formal mentoring programs. Frequently, these programs are tied to specific metrics with which the company is grading itself.

For example, if promotable women are scarce in the organization, as was the case at Kraft Foods Operations in the 1980s and 1990s while I was there, the mentors might be measured by the number they mentor in that cohort and changes year over year.

Structured programs provide strength to newly hired bakers because they emphasize mentoring, provide time for it and create a roster of potential mentors. But sadly, many become stale over time and may even become a “check off the box” type exercise for everyone climbing the company’s ladder. And not every advancing manager is cut out to be a mentor.

Interestingly, it is the smaller companies that can benefit the most from mentoring. In small companies, especially those growing in different directions or at a fast pace, individuals are thrown multiple tasks and new work. They are often asked to examine and take risks but do nothing totally unproven. Their “open to listen” attitude is devalued if their body language is poor, and they don’t understand why. And in a small company, there is no other division or geography to be traded to if an individual’s career is derailing.

Some studies have shown that change and fast growth, especially in small companies, make employees a little more conservative and a little slower. Mentoring can help to overcome this reaction as well.

For women in particular, is it advantageous to have a mentor of the same gender? Why or why not?

I was waiting for this gender question! Usually, it is the first one asked. I am told by a very senior woman of color in our food industry that when she is posed this question it focuses more narrowly on whether women of color benefit from mentoring by other women of color.

Since we have discussed it quite a bit, I can share that my friend and I answer this query the same way. First and foremost, the most important thing for a protégé to get right in her mentor is the personality fit, the high level of trust, the mentor’s savvy and respect for the culture in which the baker is navigating, and the overall bond between the baker and her mentor. Age, color and gender fall way down on the list.

That said, we know that being a woman brings unique perspectives and also unique challenges for ourselves and our companies. A female mentor’s gender-affected experiences could help to guide the younger protégé as well as create a unique affinity bond between them.

One of the most effective mentoring relationships I experienced was with Elga Wasserman. This PhD chemist, who subsequently went back to law school mid-career, took on the role of mentoring and advocating for my cohort of the 400 first women to attend Yale College in the fall of 1969. She touched, guided and advocated vigorously for us, drawing on her life experience as a trailblazer who had been one of only a few female science PhDs in her own cohort.

My most effective personal mentor was Dick Bailey at Kraft Foods, who helped me master operations within a colossal food company. I am equally indebted to both of these exceptionally talented mentor/sponsors, one female and one male.

How can people who are new to the industry find a mentor?

If you are new to our baking industry, ask around your company. Is there a formal mentoring program? Are there individuals within your company known by other new­comers to be “great at guiding and explaining”? Is there someone a few years or grades above you who recommends a specific individual who nurtured her career?

If there seems to be no one within your company and you look outside for a mentor, two words of caution. First, you will both need to make the time. Second, the mentor you choose should be someone who understands your company environment.

What advice do you have for someone seeking a mentor?

As my mom would sometimes remind us growing up, “It takes two to tango.” Effective mentoring, like the tango, takes the full engagement of the mentor and the protégé.

If you are entering a mentoring relationship, be ready to turn on your “high beams” and be totally engaged. If it is a bi-monthly cup of coffee or a monthly sandwich chat, prepare for it. Think about it. Think during your meeting. Think about the advice after you meet.

Think about how to nurture your mentor’s understanding of your challenges and her relationship with you. Like new products in our bakeries, mentoring relationships also need refreshing. Think about how to refresh your relationship so your mentor remains equally engaged and excited about his role.

And enjoy participating in one of the most effective ways we know to coach and grow new strong players in our bakery industry.