Earlier in my professional career, when I switched from brand marketing to corporate communications, I realized how important it would be for me to find a mentor in my new field. Having a trusted mentor is important for every profession, of course, but I believe it’s especially essential for developing one’s career in the corporate comms field.
When people ask me what it’s like to work in corporate comms, I sometimes describe it as being a lot like drinking from an open fire hydrant, while at the same time steering its trajectory. Even though the nature of our profession is changing (becoming less about corporate and even less about comms), this analogy still holds true for me today.
Corp Comms requires a dual focus split between monitoring how one’s company communicates externally while also paying attention to internal conversations and the development of one’s own interpersonal skills. In other words, we are expected to steer a larger trajectory while also dipping into the organization, drinking from the well, and developing our own careers along the way. You can see how this could get tricky.
A common complaint I hear from corporate comms professionals is that they are not the strongest communicators when it comes to their own careers or even positioning their own activities. A fish, maybe, doesn’t see the water it swims in.
The role we perform, with its unique dual focus, is fairly unusual compared to other functions. With ever deeper involvement in other people’s functions, issues, and problems/opportunities — in the midst of a transformational event, or two — you can begin to understand how any professional in such circumstances could lose sight of themselves. This is further compounded by the reinforcing (albeit deceptive) effect of being involved in confidential or strategic news before anyone else. We’re doing ‘important’ things, with ‘strategic-’ suffixes on Powerpoint slides, signed CDAs, while also addressing the seriousness and shifting demands of an external environment.
Last week, I stood back as I watched one of my colleagues navigate through such issues. I admired the way she would magnetically ‘snap’ all these elements into place during a meeting. When in the company of such an individual, you feel reassured, understood—when it’s someone in their mid-20s, I feel a quiet awe even. These are the moments when our professional craft makes logical sense.
Let’s not be fooled, though. Whilst we seek to deliver relevance and impact as advisors within orgs, the better we are at this, the more we deepen people’s understanding of this singular trait. I’ve seen great internal comms leads who are so great at one aspect of our function, that they can never escape it (like the ‘press officer’, the one who responds to emails at 4.04 am; who never actually branches beyond what she/he is brilliant at).
I do feel some responsibility for the persons coming into, or seeking to get out of, the Corp Comms functions. Advice is important, as the pathways in or out aren’t simple given our starting points. I see younger comms professionals chasing seniority or role expansion, or about to make decisions that don’t quite add up, and I sometimes ask, ‘What does your mentor have to say about this?’
Popping the question
About twenty years ago, when I switched to comms, I identified an individual in my organization whom I thought would make a good mentor. I am not sure what it was that I saw in him, but it represented the gap between reality and my own ambitions.
Although I felt awkward asking, one day I approached him and said, “Will you be my mentor?” As I think back to these words, I still feel embarrassed by the clumsiness of such a question, or rather, this expression of a selfish need. Fortunately, he said, ‘yes’. Learning from someone with more experience and a career path I admired, I benefitted from those mentorship sessions. Now as I recall it, it wasn’t so much the advice I was given, but the introduction of a whole new set of life choices, which my functional leaders alone wouldn’t have been able to provide.
Don’t wait for your company to provide it
While asking someone to be your mentor can feel uncomfortable, it’s essential that one takes an active role in establishing this relationship. Even in companies with mentorship programs, reaching out on your own behalf to a more experienced professional whom you admire is the first step in solidifying a mentorship that will actually be beneficial to your career in real ways—and not just on paper. Yes, there is a certain garishness in the question “Will you be my mentor?”, but it is a mistake to wait around for your organization, or anyone, to provide mentoring. We need to create our own mentorship programs.
I was speaking with my colleague, Andie, about this very topic. I was startled by a new different perspective, as she voiced observations about the difficulty in finding and then maintaining strong female mentors in leadership positions. In short, other females leaders in business are often moving at a very fast pace. The sort of deliberate interjection in pinpointing your next mentor, ‘harder than you realize’.
“10 Easy Steps to finding a mentor”
Yeah… If only it were that simple. All I can offer are some unrelated anecdotes…
One can always start with honest self-examination. Where are you in your career? What attributes are you looking for in a professional mentor? More often than not, you just know when that person is in front of you. That moment when you realize, ‘I need to speak to this person about much more than what we’re currently discussing’.
One of the few times I had an exec coach in my life (which is different to mentoring), I was struck by her advice to bring different voices into my life. I have a long standing friendship with a life mentor who has been a steady and strong support for over 25 years—everyone dear to me, also knows Tony. My coach observed, quite correctly, the need to also introduce different mentorship voices, rather than a single one; to cherish the support that I have now, but to also reconnect with people such as my older sister (where my earliest idea of mentorship was formed); to seek out strikingly different narratives, each playing a different part in this new future I was shaping.
Be specific when you reach out. Explain why you are asking for twenty minutes of their time over coffee. A mentorship is an ongoing relationship; sometimes you may reach out to your mentor more than other times, but be sure to never let the relationship lapse. Stay in touch. And be sure to thank people for their time. For something as important as this, it is worth taking a risk to new mentor relations, and doing it what it takes to maintain them.
Now that I’m older…
I still seek advice. Where possible, I make myself available to friends and collaborators—I try to make room for their conversations. These are perhaps the most rewarding interactions I have in my professional life today. I prod, perhaps sometimes inappropriately, with friends and colleagues, about such themes. Understandably, this crosses a line for some people. Other times it opens a door.
The most successful business people always have trusted advisors whose opinions they seek out when making decisions.
As comms people, we should make more concerted efforts in speaking openly about our development needs. We should celebrate and actively seeking out seasoned mentors. I don’t yet place myself in that category. It is, however, a rewarding journey seeking those who have already learned how to successfully drink from the firehose, while directing it.