Back-to-school season is in full swing for us mater mea moms. You’re probably stretched thin making sense of school supply lists and coaxing your little people back into an earlier bedtime. While we may want the freewheeling days of summer to last a bit longer, I welcome the structure and back-to-school feel of September. I love the sense of calm and coziness fall sweeps into my home and life.
Fall is also a time to watch my children form new friendships at school and meet new teachers, and for me to form new relationships with new parents and teachers alike. On the same token, it’s also a great time to think of my relationships at work. You may find this as well: Just as your little people need a circle of friends, teachers, counselors, and administrators to nurture their academic life, you need a career circle to help you navigate the workplace. Consider adding the following relationships to your circle.
A sponsor plays an extremely important role for a person of color in the workplace. This person is most likely a senior-level person in a company with influence and power. He or she will have your back in senior-level meetings when your performance or credibility is challenged. They provide you cover and also elevate you in the eyes of their peers. As people of color sometimes our work is overlooked; the right sponsor will make sure the spotlight is on you and will recommend you for interesting projects so you can demonstrate how bright your light is.
Just as you encourage your children to go out there and make new friends, you must put yourself out there to get a sponsor. Identify someone at the senior level that you connect with. Ask for time on their calendar to go to lunch or grab coffee. Find out if you can get on a project he or she is working on, then do an amazing job on the project. That is a surefire way to begin building a relationship with a potential sponsor. The relationship will not be built overnight, it will take time and several A+ projects to get you noticed by a sponsor. Be prepared to be tested. I assure you, the rewards will be well worth it.
No matter what stage you’re in during your career, you need a mentor. A mentor can be someone you work with or someone in your career working at another company. A mentor typically understands the ins and outs of your career or industry and can give you timely advice on how to tackle thorny subjects at work or life. You should have multiple mentors over the years. (As a side note, no one wants to mentor someone forever. Each mentor relationship should last 6 to 12 months with the latter being a maximum.)
In general, most people love the idea of mentoring a junior person. You should have no issue reaching out to someone you admire and asking if you could meet up once a month for mentoring sessions. During those sessions, come prepared with specific topics you want to discuss. I also encourage you to give them a start and end date for the mentoring sessions so they feel that they can be helpful for a specific period of time. It also pushes you to keep up with your regular meetings because you have the person’s attention for a limited period of time.
Sometimes you just want to someone to give you the real, and only a trusted work friend, work husband, or work wife can do that for you. This is a relationship formed over time and not the first few weeks on the job. You want to take time to make sure you can really trust him or her with your thoughts. Therefore, build this relationship over time. Once that trust is established, a work friend can help you make sense of tomfoolery in the office, help you come up with a game plan to outsmart that power-grabbing colleague or just be a good shoulder to cry on when you screw up. We spend so many hours at work, it feels good to know you have someone in your corner.
At some point in your career, you are going to need an executive coach. An executive coach is typically a trained professional who helps you become aware of your blind spots, strengths, and the issues holding you back from being your best self at work.
An executive coach typically conducts a 360° assessment of you by talking to your direct reports, your manager, your peers, and/or clients about your style and behaviors at work. The coach will then share the results with you and craft a plan for you to lean into your strengths and come up with new strategies for the areas that are getting in your way.
They can also help you with day-to-day challenges you are facing at work. Most companies will provide executive coaches to their top performers who they have identified as a future leader. If your company isn’t willing to give you an executive coach, consider paying for your own. I encourage you to thoroughly research the background of the coach you’re considering— there are a lot of Instagram quack-coaches out there, who can’t give you the direction you need.
Let’s be real: Toxic work environments can lead to insurmountable stress and anxiety. Sometimes we bring unresolved personal issues into the workplace and it impedes our progress at work.
Regardless of the source of pain in your life, adding a good therapist to the mix will help you at home and work. As a person of color, sometimes it is difficult to find a therapist who understands the struggles of a being a minority in the workplace. Don’t just look up a therapist in your insurance directory—ask close friends for recommendations and conduct your own research. Know that it’s okay to have different therapists over time. Some therapist can only serve you for a specific event in your life and then you need to find a new therapist to tackle new life challenges as your life changes.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to form all of the above relationship at once. Think of it as a continuum; each season of your career will call for one or more of the above relationships. The key is to be conscious of the need for such relationships and be open to nurturing these needs over the years.