When it comes to career growth, the reality is that you alone are responsible for managing your career. You cannot sit back and rely on your boss, teammate, or HR manager to identify your next role, find a high-profile assignment, or sign you up for important training. You are accountable for defining your own career goals, exhibiting outstanding performance consistently, developing new competencies, and surrounding yourself with the right people to help you achieve your goals.
As you take ownership of your career path, it can be helpful to think of yourself as a business (or personal brand). Just as you would with a business, build a multi-year plan, invest in your growth, take calculated risks, learn from mistakes, and recruit a diverse personal board of directors.
Creating your own board of directors is one of the most impactful things you can do for your career. Companies employ boards of directors with complementary backgrounds and expertise to provide strategic direction, ensure accountability, manage risk, and monitor performance against expectations. Similarly, your board of directors should be a collection of individuals who enable, support, and encourage your development. Here are some roles to consider when assembling your personal board.
Huggers: Close friends, family, and colleagues who provide emotional support, stability, and balance unconditionally during good times (such as when you complete a big project or earn a promotion) as well as in challenging times (when you make a mistake or experience failure).
Peers: Current and past teammates with whom you have built a solid rapport and a strong working relationship. These are individuals whom you are comfortable reaching out to for assistance, and they will always offer to help remove obstacles, explain how things work, or share pertinent information.
Coaches: Individuals who push you out of your comfort zone and help you maximize your potential. They can work in a completely different industry or job function but understand how to best motivate you to evolve professionally and achieve accomplishments you did not think possible. Some people hire formal life coaches, business coaches, or executive coaches, but an effective coach can emerge from any part of your life, such as a family relative, a parent from your kid's school, a member of the local chapter of your professional society, a neighbor, etc.
Connectors: Acquaintances who possess extensive professional networks and are willing to share information or contacts on a reciprocal basis. These individuals often appear in your mutual connections on LinkedIn and can make an introduction to people you want to meet at other companies or in other industries. It is important to maintain periodic contact with your connectors and find ways to help them so that when you eventually need assistance, there is no hesitation.
Role Models: People whom you wish to emulate because of their leadership style, business acumen, technical expertise, or career journey. Often, these are individuals working in the jobs you aspire to obtain in 5, 10, or 15+ years. Role models serve as a great source of inspiration and motivation. By learning how they sharpen their skills, overcome challenging situations, or navigate career options, you can grow your own self-confidence and better understand what is necessary to accomplish your goals.
Mentors: Trusted advisors and counselors who provide firsthand examples of professional excellence and are willing to share their knowledge, skills, advice, and time with you. Some people are lucky and find a helpful mentor by participating in a formal mentoring program. However, most will need to be more proactive by researching potential mentor candidates and then requesting informational meetings to learn more about each one. Once you finally discover there is a mutual connection or compatibility, ask that individual to be your mentor.
Sponsors: Influential colleagues within your professional network who are prepared to put their reputation on the line to help you secure specific opportunities or advance your career.
It is very important to know who within your network fulfills each of these roles. Try to have 1 to 2 individuals slated for each role and be very intentional about identifying future connections to fill each role as your jobs, interests, and priorities change.
While each role serves an important purpose, the sponsor is particularly critical and one of the harder roles to fill. Sponsors must be willing to personally vouch and advocate for you when presented with relevant opportunities. To feel comfortable doing so, sponsors need to be familiar with your work, your professional image, your strengths, and your potential. Consider this example: the leadership team at your organization is gathered for its annual long range planning retreat. When presenting next year’s strategy, an executive mentions that a new position will be created to launch a new team, project, or product. A true sponsor is someone who is prepared to raise their hand, suggest that you would be a good fit for the new position, and explain to the leadership team why you should be selected.
In your search to find a sponsor, it is important to consider all possible candidates based on their potential impact on your career, including people who may not look like you or who may be from a different background, gender, country, race, or ethnicity.
These are allies, and they can serve as sponsors to individuals from underrepresented communities, providing guidance, support, and advocacy. The importance of allies as sponsors lies in their ability to help you navigate the workplace, connect with other individuals and resources, and develop critical skills for success. Allies can also help overcome barriers and biases you may encounter, provide feedback and advice, and personally advocate for your advancement or mobility. Lastly, remember that your relationship with a sponsor should always be complementary such that both parties are learning, growing, and benefiting from the interactions.
Managing your career is no easy task, and establishing your own personal board of directors will significantly impact your path to success. The board will enhance your decision-making process by injecting objectivity as well as diverse viewpoints from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Effectively leveraging a combination of mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship is a competitive advantage and differentiator. Having a personal board of directors can help you make more informed decisions, stay accountable, expand your professional network, and increase likelihood of achieving your goals. Wishing you the best on your journey.