It’s one of those cliches that’s cliche for a good reason: In the workplace, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I’d go so far as to say that the workplace relationships I’ve built have had more bearing on my career than any other single factor.
Here are some people you should definitely watch for in the workplace. When you find them, get to know them!
1) The Good Manager
Management is both art and science, and it’s astounding to me how rare good management is. You may have a great relationship with your boss and still not be receiving good management from him or her. I was privileged to have a good manager (actually two!) in my first few years out of college, and the role they played is still paying dividends in my life more than a decade later.
A good manager lets you know what your role is and how you fit into the big picture. A good manager gives you a clear description of what success looks like in your responsibilities. A good manager provides the training and resources you need to do your job well. And a good manager helps you maximize your efforts so that he or she (and you!) are really getting the most out of your efforts. If you ever have the chance to work under a manager who can do those things, think twice before leaving his or her tutelage.
2) The Mom-away-from-Mom
Early in my career, I had a cubicle neighbor named Julie who was about my mom’s age. She actually worked on a different team from me, and our professional responsibilities hardly intertwined. But I knew she’d always be the one to notice when I was having a bad day, and she was always ready with a hug or a word of encouragement. You just need that, especially if your first job is hundreds or thousands of miles from family.
Likewise, my first editor also took it upon himself to gently remind me of things like getting the crack in my car windshield fixed, for safety’s sake, when that wasn’t the top priority on my mind. Having come from a home where Dad always took care of things like that, it was good to have someone watching out for me until I learned to integrate those things into my daily routines.
3) The Mentor
Not every experienced professional has the heart or skill to raise up younger professionals. It’s a costly role, in terms of the mentor’s time and attention. It also requires some chemistry between the mentor and the “mentoree,” which means that formalized mentoring programs within organizations may or may not actually accomplish the goal.
If you find someone in your field who is willing to get to know you, pour into you and challenge you in your role, you need to jump all over that opportunity. You cannot pay for the benefits you will receive from a successful professional mentoring relationship.
4) The Voice of Experience
This role could be combined with any of the others mentioned here. What you’ll gain from these relationships is the chance to learn from someone else’s successes and failures before you’ve racked up a ton of experience for yourself.
Look for people who are 10, 20 or 30 years ahead of you in life. Look for those who seem to have a knack for reflecting on their own experiences in constructive ways. Look for folks who are storytellers. Then invite them to lunch and ask some good open-ended questions. Describe a challenge that’s currently kicking your tail and ask if they’ve ever had an experience like that. Lightbulb moments, seriously.
5) The Senior Leader
In most businesses, the senior leadership team doesn’t have much time to interact with new professionals and for good reason. But at that level, a little relationship goes a long way. In the first 14 years of my career, I had the chance to meet twice — for an hour each — with a particular senior level executive, and it made a difference in my perspective on the organization and on some specific situations I was facing. Even though both of us have moved on to other roles, I know that if I contacted him (he’s a connection on LinkedIn), he’d be glad to offer counsel or make connections for me, and his connections are quite a bit weightier than mine.
Who have you met in your first five years on the job who is making a huge difference in your life?