Getting the right words of wisdom at the right time can make all the difference to your career. But how do you make that happen—both for yourself and for others around you?
In this episode of the Kellogg Insight podcast, we hear from Diane Brink, a senior fellow and adjunct professor within the Kellogg School’s Markets & Customers Initiative who served as CMO for IBM’s global technology services about her own journey from protégé to mentor. Then Carter Cast, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg, describes how you can solicit advice that can help accelerate your career even in the absence of a mentor.
Jessica LOVE: Early in her career, Diane Brink was labeled a high-potential future executive. Her employer put her on a senior leadership development track. She was hungry to become an executive. And there was a point when it looked like it was finally going to happen.
Diane BRINK: I had, in my view, based upon all of the input that I had gotten from my management, done everything that I could have possibly done. My next job was going to be that executive job. Checked off every single box in the development plan. My manager came to me and said, “We’ve got this great opportunity. We want you to be the executive assistant to the CFO of North America.” And I wanted to scream, but I didn’t.
LOVE: Executive ... assistant.
No, Brink didn’t scream. Instead, she did something much better. She got some career advice.
BRINK: So, I called this man, who I had worked for, and he listened to me. He listened to my frustration. He said to me, “So Diane, how long do you think you’re going to be working for?” I said, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe 25, 35 years.” He said, “These EA jobs are typically 12 to 18 months. So, do you think that there might be something that you’d learn in those 12 to 18 months that might help you down the road?” I literally put my head in my lap because what he was saying was so obvious. It was right in front of me, and I didn’t see it.
LOVE: Brink took the executive assistant job. And as her mentor predicted, what she learned and who she met ended up being incredibly valuable. From that position, she eventually rose to become IBM’s chief marketing officer for global technology services. She’s now a senior fellow and adjunct professor within the Kellogg School’s Markets & Customers Initiative.
Getting the right words of wisdom at the right time can make all the difference to your career. But how do you make that happen?
Welcome to the Kellogg Insight podcast. I’m your host, Jessica Love. Today, our producer Fred Schmalz talks to Kellogg faculty members Diane Brink and Carter Cast about how to find and develop trusted sources of career advice. That can mean establishing a formal relationship with a mentor. Or it can mean seeking out less formal feedback from colleagues and higher-ups about what will help you advance in your company. Stay with us.
Fred SCHMALZ: Diane Brink has gained so much from being mentored that she now routinely mentors others. From her experience on both sides of that mentor–protégé relationship, she’s developed a rock-solid sense of what a healthy, productive mentoring arrangement should look like.
Perhaps the most important thing mentors can do, she says, is to offer nonjudgmental support.
BRINK: The whole idea behind the mentoring relationship is that it’s a penalty-free environment. But unless you create an environment that is open and trusting, you might not necessarily get really what’s on a person’s mind or what’s bothering them or something they really want to ask you but they don’t feel comfortable asking because you happen to be somewhat more senior than they are.
SCHMALZ: A good mentor is also someone who prioritizes being a good mentor.
There are plenty of people who would be glad to act as a sounding board ... in theory. But when it comes to making time on their calendar, things just never seem to happen.
Or maybe they show up physically, but aren’t really present.
BRINK: Some mentors fail because they haven’t really embraced the role. They’re there just to listen but not to engage. That’s not very helpful. It’s a missed opportunity for the mentor, and it’s also a missed opportunity for the protégé.
SCHMALZ: Brink has advice for protégés too.
Let’s say you’ve found a mentor who truly makes time for you and who maintains a supportive, nonjudgmental attitude. What should you expect out of the relationship?
According to Brink, the answer may not be as transactional as you think.
BRINK: For example, there was a time I was paired with someone, a young woman exec, who was in the marketing function. A lot of times in function, you do a lot of mentoring to make sure that you’re succession-planning and your talent development is moving into new jobs and opportunities. When we met, she sat down, and not even two minutes into the conversation was a conversation about the next job that she was going to get and how I was going to help her get there.
I had to stop the conversation and say, “Wait, mentoring is not about finding you your next job.”
That’s not your role. Your role is to help that individual realize their potential, offer them perspective for assignments that they might have considered, talk about where their strengths are and maybe work a little bit more on their weaknesses. It’s not about finding this person their next job.
SCHMALZ: As with so much in life, what you get out of mentorship mirrors exactly what you put into it. Brink remembers one protégé who asked to meet monthly. Each time, one week before their meeting, he emailed her an agenda. Not only did that impress the heck out of her, it also demonstrated that he was committed to making the relationship as productive as possible.
Protégés also have to be ready to discuss what they want out of their own careers. A mentor can do many things, but they can’t tell you how to live your life.
BRINK: The first thing I start with is a discussion around, do they know what they want? Do they know what’s important to them?
I talk about the fact that they really drive their career. That they’re going to have a lot of people providing their point of view on what you should be doing with your career, and it’s not their decision. It’s your decision.
One of the things that I will do throughout my mentoring relationships is to encourage the individual to think about where they see themselves four or five jobs from now.
I think it forces the person to think more broadly about their development plan and the types of challenges and potential assignments that they should consider so that they can get there.
SCHMALZ: If both mentor and protégé work at the relationship, it can truly change the trajectory of the protégé’s career.
But Brink is also quick to point out that the benefits of mentoring go both ways. And the rewards for mentors go beyond just feeling good about helping someone else. For instance, mentoring can be a great way to learn about new developments—in your organization and in your industry.
BRINK: You get insight in terms of how the power structure is perceived and the political environment. You get a sense of how the culture is working in the organization. If you’re in a senior position, you don’t necessarily get to see front and center all of those different dimensions of what’s happening at whatever level, whether you’re mentoring a professional, whether you’re mentoring a new manager, or whether you’re mentoring another executive.
I think the other insight is how well is the company communicating the strategy to the employees. I think it’s pretty clear from my seat, but when you’re having a conversation, a business conversation, and you begin to appreciate the fact that, wow, that individual missed this aspect of the strategy—that’s an important learning because it helps me to be better at what we need to do to improve to make sure that we’ve got the engagement in place.
SCHMALZ: In addition to having eyes and ears on the ground in a different level of the company, mentors can benefit from protégés in more practical ways.
BRINK: I was recently paired with what I would characterize as a digital native, who’s just incredible on the social and digital aspects of marketing and the techniques and the tools and just really leading edge. She was working with startup companies out in Silicon Valley. She was dealing with a high-growth, unstructured environment. I was paired with her to help her not go crazy, to kind of say, “There’s a way that you can work through this where you’ll be successful and you’ll thrive in this kind of environment, but let’s talk through how you get there from point A to point B. Never a straight line, but point A to point B.”
What she brought to me was an ability to stay current, more current in the digital universe, because there was no way in my role that I could continue to stay apprised of all of the new tools and techniques and the applications and this and that. Just by talking with her, it allowed me to stay current in an area that was interesting to me and essential to my role.
SCHMALZ: Of course, the satisfaction of helping a young colleague learn and grow is pretty awesome all on its own.
BRINK: The best mentor is the one that really works to understand who you are and is not there to judge you, but is there to just help you realize your full potential.
It’s about giving back. It’s not just about taking. The more that you can understand that and incorporate that into who you are, I think the happier and richer your life is going to be.
SCHMALZ: It’s hard to beat personalized career advice from a long-standing, trusted mentor. But mentors can be hard to come by in some companies or professions. If that’s the position you’re in, here’s some valuable career advice that should apply to just about everyone.
Carter Cast is clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg. He’s also the former CEO of Walmart.com and the author of The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers are Made—and Unmade, a new book that asks why some talented people flourish while others see their careers stall.
He says that people who excel share three behavioral traits.
Carter CAST: One, they take the initiative. They dive right in. They take accountability for joint outcomes. So if they’re part of a team and there’s a job to be done and things are falling through the cracks because people say, well, that isn’t my area of accountability, and someone else says, well, that’s not my area of accountability—they dive in and do it.
Secondly, they’re good at building relationships. They listen well. They’re open-minded. You know, Saint Francis of Assisi—“They seek to understand before being understood.” And as a result, they engender trust with other coworkers, and so they’re able to enlist them to their cause because they’re a good teammate.
And third, they drive for results. If they say they’re going to get it done Friday, they stay ‘til midnight if they have to to get it out the door on Friday.
SCHMALZ: Got that? Take initiative, build relationships, and drive for results, and you are on your way to success.
But what does success look like in practice? Specifically, what should it look like in your job? And no matter how much initiative you take, or how strong your drive for results, do you have the underlying skills—technical or interpersonal—to actually pull it off?
The best way to find out, says Cast, is to actually ... ask.
CAST: It’s incumbent on us to ask our boss, “What are the key competencies in this position that really are important that I need to develop?”
SCHMALZ: And if your boss doesn’t seem open to this type of conversation….
CAST: I’ve always gone to peers or people that were a level above me who’ve been there before. Because they can really help you develop that roadmap of success. And generally, they’re flattered when a younger underling says, “I really admire your career, your career trajectory. Can I buy you lunch and can you talk to me about what you’ve learned and what’s important for me to build from a skillset standpoint?” I’ve never had anybody say no when I’ve done that.
People will talk all day about that stuff; they love talking about themselves.
SCHMALZ: Once you have your answer, or better yet, many answers, it’s time to get methodical.
Cast recommends compiling a list—an actual, written list of the skills that you need to have to do your job well—and then grading yourself on each and every one.
CAST: I was in brand marketing and I had a list of about, I think it was 14 activities or skills that I needed to be able to do. For example, I needed to be able to do regression analysis. I needed to be able to do a break-even analysis. Then there was a whole category of strategic marketing, segmenting markets, figuring out how to position products competitively by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the competition…. You get the point.
So there were 14 of them. And then I put, here’s where I am now—a C here, a D here, a B+ here. And then I looked at the areas where I had big gaps, and I just slowly but surely went about trying to narrow that gap between what I knew and what I needed to know.
SCHMALZ: If you need help grading yourself on some of these skills, particularly softer skills that are harder to self-evaluate, why not turn to others? Ask them directly: Do I have the attitude or working style to truly succeed at this company?
When Cast was a senior product marketer at FritoLay, he had a conversation with his boss that dramatically changed his trajectory. Cast had thought he was on the fast track at the company. But in reality, he learned, he’d gotten a reputation as uncooperative. Unmanageable. In other words, unpromotable. He also realized that the only way to change his reputation was to take that feedback—those grades—and put them to use.
CAST: It was up to me to say, OK, I tend to have a problem when the heavy hand of authority pushes on me. How am I going to get better at dealing with authority figures?
SCHMALZ: If that sounds like a painful process, it was for Cast. No one likes to find out that they need a major course correction. But as Cast points out, pain is often the impetus for change. And being able to change ... well, that can make a huge difference—both in the way you approach learning and in people’s perceptions about your willingness to take criticism.
CAST: Learning how to be learning-agile is the most important thing you can do for your career.
So what does that mean? It means being open-minded and listening and not talking all the time. Innovators have a six-to-one ratio of questions asked to statements made.
And they’re critical of their own performance and reflective about it. How could I have done that better? What could I have done differently? And they ask people for feedback.
So, having this humility about knowledge and never thinking that you’re on top of your game, always feeling a little bit paranoid that there’s a lot you don’t know and that you’re in a state of beta with yourself and your career. I’m 54, and I’m always in this state of testing and trying new things because I don’t know very much.
LOVE: This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes. It was written by Anne Ford.
Special thanks to our guests, Diane Brink and Carter Cast.
As a reminder, you can find us on iTunes, Google Play, or our website, where you can read more about how to find the best sources of career advice. Visit us at insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu. We’ll be back next month with another episode of the Kellogg Insight podcast.