THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Help a kid: Learn valuable skills from mentoring

UPS, the delivery company, used to run ads saying how great its community service program is, how assisting people and communicating with people who are different than we are helps us understand ourselves, and in turn, be better managers.

Good for UPS. I'm a big believer in community service. Probably we all are. It's just that you have to be a really big believer to do it on your own time.

As a behemoth Fortune 500 company, UPS can afford to send a key manager to the boondocks and pay him his cushy corporate salary to teach coal miners to read or whatever he's doing. If you work at UPS, get yourself into that program, because it's true that you'll learn about yourself, and you'll manage more effectively because you'll understand the diversity of what people want and how to help them get there.

Most of us, though, do not work at UPS. But I have good news: iMentor provides similar benefits to UPS's program, and you don't need a Fortune 500 company backing your goodwill.

This program pairs employed people with underprivileged students. Mentors can operate from their office desk during the workday since most communication with the students takes place via e-mail, although you do meet your student in person a few times during the year. And the program lasts a year, so it's not like you're signing your life away.

To be a mentor you have to answer questions such as "What's your definition of child abuse?" and you have to have references vouch for your sanity. Then you wait for your protégée to send an e-mail.

Mine came one day when I was sifting through my inbox deleting porn. I read an e-mail that began, "I am 5'9'', I wear my hair tied up, and I'm single." I hit delete. Then I realized that the return address was from iMentor. So I fished the e-mail out of my trash and started mentoring.

My protégée writes one-sentence e-mails, but she writes about family members who were killed, disappearing parents, and lost boyfriends. Sometimes I wonder how I can do anything for this kid via e-mail, but iMentor assures us mentors that at the end of each program, the mentors think they accomplished nothing, and the students think the program was amazing.

The program coordinator reminds us, "Some of these kids have never sent e-mail to an adult. They have never had discussions with an adult beyond their family and school."

My iMentor communiqués are not management-oriented per se, but it's clear that I'm learning to be a more patient, open-minded and empathetic communicator, and the process has required very little time from someone like me, who is always looking to e-mail for a distraction from work anyway.

Right now, iMentor is operating in the New York City area. If you end up moving near there, I recommend that you sign up. If you think you don't have time, remember that reading can take you only so far in the climb up the management ladder.

And UPS believes so strongly in the power of community service that the company is willing to pay for its most promising executives to go do it. Treat yourself like a most-promising executive and try out a program like iMentor.