- Today’s career paths are unscripted and non-linear.
- Building skills and gaining experience aren’t the only things that matter for getting ahead in one's career.
- Effective career management requires a strong, purposeful network.
If you’ve spent any time job-searching—and if you’re reading this, chances are, you have—then you know that the route to advancement in today’s workforce is often opaque. As much as we might like to think of our organizations as meritocracies where good behavior gets rewarded and poor performers don’t end up with promotions, the reality is often quite the opposite. The rules can frequently change, if any exist at all. And no matter how many times you ask for feedback and input on your next steps, you simply may not get any. That being the case, what are you supposed to do to get ahead in your career?
The smart professional, no matter how inexperienced, knows that the responsibility for their career ultimately rests with them. No longer do organizations provide clear career ladders to climb. And, no longer are individuals beholden to any one organization for the entirety of their careers. It’s up to you to ask yourself four key questions:
- What matters to you?
- Where do you want to go?
- What skills and experiences do you need to get there?
- Who can help you?
Each of these questions is important. But knowing who can help you and how to build those relationships can make or break your career path from day one.
The Four People You Need
We all need strong, broad, diverse networks of people (van Emmerik, 2004). We need friends who support us and make us laugh and add value to our lives. We need people we call family (related or otherwise) who are our unfailing champions and safety nets. We need deep relationships with people we love, romantically or otherwise. And, we need professional relationships to help us to achieve our goals and to get ahead in whatever ways we might be defining that. While the friends, family, and loving relationships may develop organically over time, you need to take a targeted, strategic approach to building your professional support system. Put simply, there are four key people you need in your network.
Mentor. A mentor is someone who is willing to support you in a personal and purposeful relationship, to provide guidance, wisdom, and feedback based on their experience, and to facilitate your growth and development. A mentor has prior experience in the area in which you’re seeking mentorship. For example, I could be a great mentor to someone looking to advance in higher education. I’m not the best choice for someone looking to advance in law or medicine. A mentoring relationship is a deep investment of time, energy, and social capital; therefore, only a few people at most in your network will occupy this role, and you need to be thoughtful about who best fits you.
Sponsor. A sponsor is someone who is willing to spend their political and organizational capital on you. A sponsor advocates for you in rooms to which you are not invited. A sponsor creates opportunities for you and pushes you forward to higher-ups.
A sponsor may not be in a deep relationship with you. It may be enough to know you, your skills, and your capabilities. They are putting their name and reputation on the line for you. So, while they may not need to be in a deep relationship with you, you need to cultivate these relationships before you need them to make them work for you.
Wise Counselor. A wise counselor is someone who may not rise to the level of a mentor, but who can provide great advice, support, and feedback when it’s needed. You might think of a wise counselor as “mentoring-lite,” someone whose door is open to you when you need it, but may not be in an ongoing, deep relationship with you like a mentor would be. However, these people may turn into mentors over time. And, just like a mentor, you should select wise counselors based on your specific needs and goals; therefore, you may have many of these in your network.
Connector. The connector is probably the easiest role to fill and the one you will find most frequently. Most of the people in your LinkedIn network serve in this role. Connectors don’t necessarily rise to the level of a sponsor, but they can make introductions, pass along your resume when needed, and recommend opportunities and resources. Increasingly, connectors are the most powerful people you can find, as they are the gatekeepers to knowledge, information, and resources.
Building Your Network
So, you know what you need. How do you go about building a strong network that will help you with your career goals? It’s not hard, but it does take work. The good news is, that work is all about building relationships, and it starts with you.
- First, do some self-reflection on what matters to you. What is driving you to work? What really matters to you in terms of work environment and work-life balance or integration? What motivates you to show up to work every day? How does your current role or organization align with those things? What do you feel is missing, currently?
- Next, think about where you might want to go. It may mean staying right where you are or getting a promotion. It might mean finding a different role or organization (or even industry) that’s more in line with your lifestyle preferences and motivation. Where would you like to see yourself in a year?
- Third, objectively assess your gaps and your network. What are the skills and experiences you are missing that will help you reach that goal? Who do you know who is skilled in those areas? These are potential wise counselors. Who has access to opportunities, resources, and higher-ups? These are potential connectors and sponsors. Who are the people who ask the deep questions, who give great advice and feedback, and who genuinely seem to care about your growth and development? Those are potential mentors.
Once you have identified these people, then you do the work of building those relationships. It’s about showing up, building trust, asking great questions, and looking for opportunities to add value. Rinse and repeat.
Network-building is relationship-building and that work always starts with you. Even when you can't quite see a clear path forward, that’s how you take ownership of your career, one step and one relationship at a time.
van Emmerik, I.J.H. (2004). The more you can get the better: Mentoring constellations and intrinsic career success. Career Development International, 9(6), p. 578-594.