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Six Kinds of Career Allies: Building a Personal Board of Directors

Written by: Julia VanDeren
Published on: Dec 20, 2018

The people we encounter in our professional lives can support our careers in a number of ways. Most often we look to them for mentorship and networking opportunities.

In recent years, the concept of a “personal board of directors” has emerged, spurred in part by research that has developed around supporting women rising through the corporate ranks. In fact, just recently, a tip from Harvard Business Review recommended we include critics as well as fans and sponsors on our personal board of directors.

So what are some of the roles allies can play in our careers and how can they help us fill out our personal board of directors?

1. Mentors and Guides

Mentors are trusted advisors who provide perspective, counsel, guidance, and access to resources as our careers progress. They also often cheer for us along the way. Mentors and guides have experience pursuing similar goals and share with us the lessons they learned, provide feedback on our own efforts, and offer pointers for dealing with difficult situations.

While mentors may help us hone specific skills, their real focus will be on offering insight into our strengths, development needs, opportunities, and environment so that we can better navigate whatever comes our way.

2. Sponsors and Advocates

Sponsors usually occupy senior roles in our own organizations and spend their social and political capital on our behalf. They put their reputations on the line to recommend us for opportunities or otherwise raise awareness about us and our potential. These opportunities may be special projects, important assignments, training programs, or promotions.

While we should try to get regular feedback from our sponsors, their biggest contributions to our success come when we are not in the room with them. Indeed, their unseen efforts as our advocates, persuading others to take a chance and invest in us, is the critical service they provide. This contrasts with other career ally relationships in which the benefits accrue during our direct interactions with them.

3. Coaches and Teachers

Coaches tend to focus on relatively narrow and specific goal-setting, goal-achieving, and goal-reviewing processes. When first engaging a coach, we may explore a broader array of factors to identify the focus of the relationship. But when the goals are deciphered, the relationship will maintain a singular focus on them.

Coaches and teachers usually help us develop our soft or career skills. These days, we often think of coaches as people our employer hires to facilitate our development. But peers, managers, and other colleagues can fulfill coaching roles. For example, if a coworker gives good presentations and we want to improve our presenting skills, we may ask them to coach us.

4. Networking Contacts and Information Sources

Our network contacts can give us insight into the state of the job market and the broader work environment and offer important perspectives on potential job or business opportunities. They can also inform us about the culture in organizations we’re looking to break into.

The informational interview — a brief meeting with a contact working in a job or sector that we are interested in — is among the most powerful sources of career research, so we shouldn’t hesitate to set them up with our networking contacts.

5. The Personal Board of Directors and Feedback Pool

The rationale behind the personal board of directors is simple: No single ally can provide all the feedback and advice we need to make the fullest strides in our careers. Our personal board of directors will include many of the career allies identified so far: mentors, sponsors, respected contacts in the industry, etc. And, as Harvard Business Review noted, our board of directors should include critical voices as well. After all, our critics can identify our flaws and warn us about the potential roadblocks and limitations we might encounter.

6. Friends

Friendships are crucial to our work lives. We can vent to work friends who help keep us motivated and connected and often encourage us to take the kind of career risks that we need to take. They remind us to stay true to ourselves and that we are more than just our jobs and careers. Not all of our career allies are friends in the long run, of course, but friends can serve as other kinds of career allies as well.

The point here should not be to inventory and categorize all our professional supporters. Rather, it is to think broadly about how allies are essential to our careers while identifying the specific assistance we may be looking for.

With a refined perspective on what support we may require and what support is attainable, we can cultivate our networks and find the career allies we need when we need them.

One final thought: Don’t forget that while these allies are essential to our careers, we also need to serve as allies in others’ careers. It is important to take that honor and responsibility seriously.

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