By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
There are few things that are more important, and more challenging, than building great relationships at work. And, as someone who is just starting out, you are probably discovering that many, if not most (if not all) of your new colleagues are middle-aged or older. You’re not going to have a lot in common with these folks, right off the bat. And yet, there’s still great value in working to build relationships with these people.
Why? First, these are the people you will spend the most time with every day. There is value in collegiality, in being a good citizen of your organization. Show up to the coffee gatherings and the birthday celebrations and the volunteer events and whatever else is happening. You don’t have to do everything. But people will notice your absence in these moments, which can impact your ability to be successful at work. And, second, somewhere in that group is someone who could become a mentor to you. Or a sponsor. Or a networking contact.
We all need broad, diverse networks of strong and weak ties to support our personal and professional development. Strong ties are the people who know you well, who are always in your corner, who support you no matter what. Often these look like friends and family, but not necessarily so. The value of these people is that they are your unfailing champions and advocates. But sometimes they can have blinders on when it comes to areas that you need to improve and may not give you the feedback that you need to hear. Not always – a great strong tie is someone who both advocates for you and is honest with you – but often. Also, your strong ties usually make up a small, tight group of people, which means their ability to help you is limited and finite.
And that’s why you also need weak ties. Weak ties are a few degrees out in the six degrees of separation model. Weak ties are most of the people in your LinkedIn network. They likely know you, and may even be willing to advocate for you, but they aren’t necessarily going to show up for you every time you ask. Weak ties provide the benefit of access to greater opportunity and connections because each of your weak ties also has a network of their own. Weak ties can give you more honest feedback at times because they likely don’t have as much history or as deep of a relationship with you as your strong ties do.
Mentoring has become a popular term in recent years, so much so that it is easy to throw it around as the be-all, end-all fix to every problem. This is not how you should approach building your network. First, let’s recognize what mentoring is. As we define it, effective mentoring is a purposeful and personal relationship in which a more experienced person (mentor) provides guidance, feedback, and wisdom to facilitate the growth and development of a less experienced person (mentee). Mentoring relationships are in-depth commitments, both to the other person and to the work that is to be done. They are focused on the learning and growth of the mentee, and about forward action to achieve identified learning goals. When stated that way, you might be thinking, “Sounds nice, but that’s not really what I need or want right now.”
That’s great! Not everyone in your network should rise to the level of a mentoring relationship, just like not everyone in your network is going to rise to the level of being a strong tie. Sometimes what you need is more of a wise counselor, who is someone who can give you some advice and guidance in the moment based on their experience, but without that relationship commitment. Or, at some point you might need more of a sponsor, someone who can and will advocate for you to higher ups for opportunities and promotions. At times, all you need is a networking contact. The bottom line is that you have to do the work to figure out what you need, and then you do the work to build those relationships.
As you start to build relationships with your new colleagues, look for the people who can serve as those wise counselors. Expecting anyone to jump into a formal mentoring relationship with you right off the bat is a big ask. Remember: they are all dealing with their own stuff and may not have a lot of time or energy to worry about yours. But asking someone to grab coffee for fifteen minutes, so that you can benefit from the wisdom of their experience, is a much lower ask of someone’s time.
The key is this: you need all sorts of people to support your growth and development, both personally and professionally. And, the responsibility to develop these relationships rests with you. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and give you an opportunity or take you under their wing. The important work for you to do is to seek people out, build relationships, and look for places where you can add value so that when you need it, they will want to add value to you.
As a bonus: you might find that you like these people! Not all of them. No one ever said that you have to be best friends with the people at work, but it makes life more pleasant if you can find a friend or two there. As you get older and gain experience, you’ll find that you will have work friendships across the age spectrum, and that each provides value to you and to your life in different ways. This is your opportunity to start building those relationships from the beginning.
For more advice on building great professional relationships, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals and their managers.