The right advice can dramatically change your career. But to get that insight, you need to talk to the right people. Build a network of people with different roles and your professional life will benefit from diverse perspectives. Here are a few people you should regularly connect with.
Find the Right Mentor for Decisions that Affect You
A mentor can take your career to the next level, but you need to pick the right one. Some guy who made your friend successful might not be the right mentor for you. The mentor-protege relationship is unique. It requires two people who share values and a way of thinking, as well as respect each other, but one is in a position to guide the other.
A study by University of California, San Francisco found some common traits of successful mentoring relationships. As the protege, you should be able to help the mentor grow as well, you can't just take from them without giving back. You also need to manage the relationship by respecting the mentor's time, so set up meetings professionally and do your homework before you ask questions. The study author, Dr Mitchell Feldman, also notes that you can work to form a personal connection:
This is what is known as chemistry, and contrary to popular belief, chemistry can be created, by being actively present in the relationship and listening and reflecting back what you've heard.
Finding a mentor isn't always about looking for someone new; you might already have that person in your network without realising it. See if a relationship with these qualities already exists in your life and tap that instead of trying to start a new one.
Once you have a mentor, asking the right questions is important. How do you know what are the right questions? Ask the mentor himself, says career advisor Penelope Trunk:
The first time I asked Chris, "What should I be asking you now?" I felt silly. After all, it's a line he fed me. But now I use it with him all the time, and it's actually an invitation for him to tell me what he thinks I'm missing, which is information I wouldn't get if I directed the conversation the whole time.
In your search for the right mentor, Inc.com has a few words of wisdom that you should always remember: "Your best mentor isn't always the most successful guy in the room."
Connect with a "Super Expert" for Long-Term Vision
There are people in your industry who outrank you by many rungs or are far more successful (or there's no reason for you to be reading this article). Connect with at least one person like that who will take your calls or reply to your emails.
Like with any networking, the best approach is to first look within your own circles. Chances are, one of the top bosses at your current workplace fits the bill of what you are looking for. If you don't know such an expert personally, don't be afraid to reach out to busy people. S2 Groupe founder Selena Soo says there are four things to remember when contacting them:
- Make it short, so it's easy to digest.
- Share something specific that you liked about their product/blog post, etc. (i.e., an entertaining story or a deceptively simple tactic they offered).
- Share how you have taken action or will be taking action.
- Express your gratitude.
A super expert can't usually be a mentor: they are far too busy, personal connections are difficult to form, and the gap in your positions means there is little you can offer them.
While the mentor's job is to advise you about your career, the super expert's role is to tell you where your industry is heading. It's the people at the top of the pyramid whose job it is to look into the future and figure out the big picture. So ask them about that, not a question about your promotions or how to get your boss to notice you.
You also get to take advantage of an expert's experience. They have gone through a lot to climb to where they are now, and in the process, have insights into areas which perhaps your mentors don't either. Ask them pointed questions about how they tackled certain issues and you will gain insight into how experts in your field solve problems. Focus on the process, not on the result.
Identify a Peer for Exchange and Support
Not everyone at the same level as you is a competitor. Look for peers who are happy to help you if you are willing to help them in return. You will run across them at your office, at events, or in other work-related environments. Much like a mentor, find someone who is on the same wavelength as you are.
Where a mentor advises and an expert tells you the big picture, peers are best for exchanging ideas and brainstorming. This connection is also important because it lets you leverage a completely new professional network.
Invariably, a peer-based relationship is going to turn into a friendship — and that's actually a good thing to happen. It's important not to get competitive; think of yourselves as a team, not as individuals. As Careerealism puts it, you're looking for a partner:
You need to have someone who is in a similar place and on a similar path to share with. In fact, partners do a lot of sharing. This is a person you can share the wins and woes with. Partners will also share resources, opportunities and information.
That point about "sharing the woes" is particularly true. The peer relationship provides a support structure that you can't find in others. In fact, it helps to cultivate connections with more than one peer because the base roles — exchange and support — don't step on someone else's toes.
Never Deny Advice to Bright-Eyed Juniors Who Ask For It
The mere act of being a professional will get you people who ask for advice. The person asking the advice will change depending on how successful you are, but never deny help if someone asks. Advice is free, dole it out and you'll gain an ally.
Plus, you never know who is going to be a huge success tomorrow. Of course, if too many people are asking for your two cents, it helps to be able to identify rising stars like Mike Fishbein does. Still, the author of How To Build an Awesome Professional Network also says you should help when you can:
Rising stars are young people who you see great potential in. These people tend to grow and rise quickly. I try to build relationships and help rising stars as much as I can while I still can. Maybe five years down the road they will be investing and you'll have started a company. Maybe they will be the CEO of a company that you want to partner with…or even work for. Have a long-term view. Don't just think about where people are now, think about where they will be. And where you might be.
Personally, I have another reason I never refuse help to someone who I outrank: I love to get that fresh-eyed perspective. As you grow in your career, it's easy to lose sight of all the things you wanted to do when you were a naive newbie. You learn with time that many of those were idealistic notions and can't work. But it helps to be reminded of those naive ideas; to be reminded of how you used to think, and analyse how much has changed. Not every person you outrank will be naive or think like you do, but like we already said, advice is free and it doesn't take much time to give it.
Talk Shop with an Outsider to Analyse Your Processes
When you discuss ideas and problems with people connected to the industry you work in, you eventually find the same thoughts again and again. Talk to a professional from a different field to learn about new ways of approaching solutions.
There are two upsides to talking to a professional from a new industry. First, you can gain a new perspective on your current problem. Second, you can find new information that can be important to your industry. As Philip E. Agre of the UCLA's Department of Information Studies puts it:
Talk to people in other professions to find issues that are going to be important for your profession. This could mean simply asking them what issues are important right now, or it could mean explaining the situation in your profession to them in detail and asking them to instruct you. For example, the people who first applied ideas from statistics to computer science became leaders, as did the people who first applied economic analysis to law.
I also found that talking about my industry with those outside of it gives me clarity on how my industry works and how I do my job. Since I have to break down each aspect and explain it to this outsider, I am forced to reassess every bit of my work, and that can lead to good ideas on doing some things differently, which would not have struck me otherwise.
Apart from these people to talk shop with, you should have a good professional network laid out as well. Your professional network may not be where you want to discuss major issues. But it is where the lessons learned from the aforementioned people will be put into practice.