When I was early on in my career, just a baby consultant (before I broke free and became a career coach), I used to wonder a lot of things. Namely, how people got ahead. Or, to put it another way: How did that kind-of-douchey guy get promoted so quickly?
And, why did that other girl seem to get jobs so easily? Also, how was that senior manager on the fast track? He was so young!
It took me a while to realize that they had one big thing in common: They had support.
The douchey guy had a powerful uncle who was willing to open doors.
The other girl seemed to have an amazing network of peers who kept her in the know about job openings.
The senior manager on the fast track seemed to have a regular hang-out with the leadership team.
And then there was me. Tall, a little awkward, and sometimes too direct. Sure, I was good at my job, but I also felt like I was getting left behind.
Through too much directness, I had also made a not-friend of my company-assigned mentor (i.e., the person who was in charge of promoting me). I also hadn’t spent much time getting to know my leadership team.
You can guess that the first promotion I wanted didn’t come as quickly as I had hoped for.
Now, don’t get me wrong: The first step to getting ahead is to do great work and be known as someone people can count on.
But step two is something that many people forget: putting together a career support team. After all, if no one knows about how great your work is, or how great you are, then all the great work in the world won’t help you move up the ladder or hand you that amazing opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
So, how do you build that team? Here are three steps to consider at any job—ideally sooner, rather than later.
Step 1: Focus on Your Peers
Spend some time getting to know people at your level across the company. For one, it makes the workday a whole lot more fun when you know your co-workers. But in addition, people move on all the time, and when they do, they can be a wonderful way for you to peek into a new company.
Working side-by-side with someone is an obvious way to do that, but so is hanging out at company happy hour, inviting people to lunch or coffee, and just having a conversation at the coffee machine that isn’t about work. (Yep, you want to build relationships, not just work contacts.)
And as people do change projects, leave the company, or move on in general, maintain your connection with them. Keep in touch though social media and also through conversation—in person. It’s amazing what one dinner or lunch can do to land you a new (and fabulous) job.
Step 2: Seek Out a Mentor
Mentoring has gotten to be a pretty formal term these days, but I think we are taking it too seriously. The truth is that you can be mentored by anyone you trust—a senior family member, an old boss, a leader in your company, or even a former peer who has moved up. It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, either, just someone who you can bounce ideas off of and who has some wisdom or guidance to offer when you need some insight.
Wondering if you should change jobs? Looking for a certain connection at a new company? Trying to get a meeting with a higher-up? Pick two or three people you know who you think have great advice for you or insight into something you are wondering about, and start informally chatting with them. Maybe it’s an office drive-by, a quick coffee, or a 20-minute phone call. Whatever makes sense for them (and you). Most people like to feel wise and valued, and if you are mindful of their time and appreciative of what they have to offer, it will pay dividends for you in the future.
If you can’t identify anyone who might fill this role, ask others who their mentors are, and see if that spurs ideas. You can also give it time and see who comes your way. It’s the approved kind of stalking!
Step 3: Get a Sponsor
Sponsors are different than mentors—they are people in your current organization who are actively trying to help you move up the ladder. They help you because they like you and because your moving up helps them—you have a talent, skill, or ability that benefits them, so they are willing to go to bat for you.
Finding someone who can be a true sponsor and winning them over takes time and work, but it’s well worth the effort. I’d start with your manager or someone else who’s one level above you. Ask to schedule time on this person’s calendar to pick his or her brain about your career and plans for growth, asking for feedback, input, and advice. After that, go out of your way to be incredibly useful to this person, both in your current responsibilities and by taking on new ones, speaking up in meetings, and generally being a go-to employee. Finally, stay connected through informal hallway chats, office drive-bys, and scheduled check-ins, so you’re always on your sponsor’s radar.
And for me? Well, I asked for and got a new company mentor who really turned out to be a sponsor in disguise, and I spent as much time as possible being helpful to her, getting to know my leadership team, and being amazing at my job. When promotion time came back around, I had an army of advocates who helped me get that next great position, and then the one after that. Three quick promotions later, I could look back and trace some of my success directly to my career support team.
Bottom line: Work hard, but make sure you have the right community surrounding you. There’s no end to what you can do.
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