Career development is sometimes an ill-defined path, where it’s left up to us to identify our next career step and figure out a way to achieve it. The privileged, the hustlers and the outspoken somehow know to manage up and get people to open doors for them. The rest of us, especially women, minorities and introverts, suffer.
It’s important to be competent and skilled, but it’s equally important, if not more, to strategically cultivate the right networks at your workplace. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the right mentors & sponsors can tremendously accelerate your career growth.
Here are the four people at work you need in your corner, and some actionable tips on working with them to benefit your career:
Someone who has the role you want:
Get to know them. Ask them about the skills they use in their role, their team dynamics and culture, the reason they applied for that role, the typical career trajectory of the people on that team, or the open roles on their team over the next 3-6 months. Any questions about both the day-to-day and long-term strategic outlook they have that would help you position yourself as a strong next candidate for the role.
Ask them to let you shadow them for half a day, or for a low-risk side-project to give you more exposure to their work. When you’re ready to apply for a role on their team, ask this person to introduce you to the hiring manager and put in a good word for you.
Ask them what you need to do to get a promotion, a raise, or more responsibilities. Depending on your company and role, some managers could give you a very clear and specific checklist of things you can do, but others may be more ambiguous and talk about competency, something largely unmeasurable which leaves room for biases. Keep asking follow up questions until you clearly understand the specific actions you need to take.
If they say, “I’ll need you to take more initiative”, you can ask, “Can you give me an example of what that would look like?” If they say, “You need to work on executive presence”, you can ask, “What are some ways others have successfully demonstrated executive presence? And what action can I take to meet your standards for executive presence?”
After they give you specific examples of what success would look like, double check, “So if I demonstrate X, is there anything else that would prevent you from promoting me?” Send them a recap email so you can refer to it every three months and update them on the progress you’ve made.
Your manager is responsible for your entire team’s success – not just your personal success – so your career goals at work can sometimes be a conflict of interest for your manager. It’s important to find a mentor at your company outside of your direct line of report who can invest in your success. They understand your company culture and have context on the business to give contextual guidance, but are removed enough from your team that they can provide a safe space. They can give you objective advice on navigating your career conversations and work relationships.
If your company offers a formal mentorship program, sign up today! If not, you can participate in ERG’s, volunteer activities and side projects to get to know more people at your company to increase your odds of finding your mentor/s.
While a mentor can give you advice and support, a sponsor actually opens doors for you using their klout and influence at the company. A sponsor is a senior leader at your company who can advocate for you when you’re not present in a room where decisions are being made about you, and who can recommend you for special projects when relevant opportunities arise.
Don’t forget that sponsors are earned! There are several easy and effective ways to get on a senior leader’s radar. You can ask them a question at your company’s all hands and send them an intelligent email as a follow up, you can start/lead an ERG at your company and ask them to sponsor it, you can write a blog post on behalf of your company and ask them for a quote.
If you sense a personal connection, ask them if they have 15 minutes for a quick call, video call or in person meeting. And come prepared with talking points about your special project or your next career step and seek their advice. Most leaders are driven by creating the next generation of leaders. They’ll be happy to guide you if they see potential in you.
Send them a thank you note, and send them email updates on your progress every 3-4 months. When you talk about your achievements, don’t just talk about yourself, instead talk about the impact to business. For example, don’t say, “I built X feature”. Instead, you can say, “I built X feature, which increased user activity by Y% leading to more revenue for the company.”
Don’t forget to build strong connections with your peers. In several years, you’ll both be doing awesome things and they might hire you on their team or become your client or perhaps start a company with you!