More Than Mentors
Preparing Entrepreneurial Leaders

More than Mentors: How to Build Your Village

The phrase “It takes a village” often sparks thoughts and memories of community and family, but probably not co-workers or careers. Pia Hill Foard, a senior human capital partner at American Institutes for Research, thinks this is a missed opportunity. For Hill Foard, a career is something to be conscientiously nurtured and built over time, relationship by relationship. Her three-pronged approach to career growth includes mentors, sponsors, and a personal board of advisors.

Start with a Mentor

Much has been made about the beneficial impact a mentor can have on a career. Mentors care about you, offer advice and direct feedback, and can help navigate inevitable office politics. For example, Melony Isaac, a security analyst and graduate of Babson College, leans on her mentor for help preparing for challenging conversations at work. “She started off as a friend, someone to bounce ideas off of,” says Isaac. “Now, if I know a difficult conversation is coming up with somebody, I’ll practice the conversation with her first before having it for real.”

Oftentimes, the easiest mentor to tap is your boss. “Look for somebody aspirational,” suggests Hill Foard. “If you can find a role model who’s in the shoes you’d want to wear a year or two from now, that’s great.”

What should you do if your current boss isn’t an ideal candidate? Consider developing your local and personal connections—even folks you’re connected with on LinkedIn—and start keeping in touch. “Do what you can to help them and make the relationship a two-way street, so that it’s there for you when you need it,” says Hill Foard.

A Secret Sponsor

Sponsors are different from mentors in one very important way: you probably aren’t going to know who they are! “I think of sponsors like the Godfather,” Hill Foard says. “They are more powerful than mentors, and are frequently at a high-enough level within an organization that they can put opportunities in your path.”

If you don’t know who your sponsors are, how do you go about getting one? It all comes down to consistency and character. Put 100 percent of yourself into your work, communicate clearly, and let people know what you stand for. If influential people within your organization respect you, your reputation, and your work, chances are they’ll be willing to put their name on the line and vouch for you.

What does this look like in practice? Consider this example recently overheard in our own office:

Sponsor: “Did you know that Mike is interested in starting a podcast? I know it’s not the way we traditionally use him, but let’s keep it in mind.”
Mike’s Manager: “I would have never known he had that interest. Thank you so much for letting me know!”

Building Your Board

Involving mentors, sponsors, and others in your career journey brings in a variety of perspectives, which Hill Foard sees as a major advantage. In fact, she encourages collecting these trusted opinions in one place, by building a personal board of advisors. Your board may include people from different parts of your life, yet they should share several common traits: you should be proud to be associated with them, and you should trust them to be more than just a “yes man.” Here are a few personalities Hill Foard recommends adding to your board:

  • Chairperson: The person you turn to first; perhaps a spouse or family member
  • Zen Master: Someone you can count on to keep you sane and calm
  • Business Guru: A professional peer who knows your craft inside and out
  • Sounding Board: Someone who is wired similarly to you, with a sensibility like your own
  • Devil’s Advocate: A person with a keen ability to reveal opposing perspectives
  • Lifelong Friend: Someone who knows your history and helps you stay true to your values

No one person will have the answer to every situation, so Hill Foard encourages thinking about the unconventional teachers in your life from whom you can learn. “In this case, age and experience can be a real advantage worth leveraging,” she says, suggesting that people look outside their peer group when building a personal board. “Like anything,” she adds, “you absolutely get back what you give.”

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