By Jen Giang
The story of how a 19-year-old university dropout survived the working world as a semi-functioning adult by utilizing professional advocates.
When the 19-year-old me left university, the job market was not waiting with open arms. I would sit on the computer applying to hundreds of jobs every day and getting nowhere. That’s the reality for many of today’s recent grads, let alone those of us who didn’t graduate and refuse to lie about it.
Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from a senior manager at one of the big five banks. She had attended an event I had helped to plan for a non-profit organization and was so impressed by my work that she decided to hire me on the spot. She didn’t even look at my resume.
That woman became the first of several “professional advocates” I have accumulated as the years have passed. These people help me to push forward in my career. They support my goals and, unlike my peers, have both experience and my best interests in mind when offering advice.
The first step
Depending on your needs, situation and access to professional resources, you’ll want to explore potential ways to find an advocate. The thing with “these people” is that they do not fall from the sky. You must earn the right to have someone put their credibility and reputation on the line to help you.
Think about the characteristics of a good employee and make sure you’re practicing them all before you reach out: hard worker, willing to learn, reliable, enthusiastic, committed, going above and beyond, etc. Now think about how you might use those traits to impress your direct supervisor, higher management or LinkedIn connections. Here are a few I would like to point out.
Take the initiative and go above and beyond: A common phrase I hear is, “That’s not my job.” But taking the initiative to do more than what you are told shows you are capable of looking beyond yourself and thinking of the greater good of the company. Not only does it show potential for growth, but it builds your credentials for future leadership roles. To move up, you must learn and do the basics.
Be reliable: It’s as simple as doing what you have said you will do. Complete the tasks that are assigned to you on time and on budget.
Be willing to learn: Make mistakes and learn from them. Ask how you could improve.
Communicate: Be honest if you don’t understand what you are being asked to do or need additional instructions. Open conversations create relationships.
Now that you’re working hard at the above traits, who should you approach?
How to find a professional advocate
Your current employer: Your current job is a great way to start—perhaps with your direct supervisor. Or find someone in management who you look up to or aspire to be, and find an opportunity to work with them. This is a great way to show off your skills and develop a relationship with your employer.
Mentorship: There are many mentorship programs, from youth to community programs and industry-specific programs. Find one that works for you and push outside your comfort zone. Ask intelligent questions and accept the advice given.
Volunteer work: I have found a lot of my professional advocates through my volunteer work. Non-profit work can be very beneficial for your career, especially if you participate as a board member. You will have the opportunity to work on causes you care about while meeting professionals from a wide range of industries. This will not only help you to build your network, but also provides sponsors from outside your direct workplace who will push you forward.
Retaining a professional advocate
Be real: It’s your job to reach out when you need help or have questions. Admitting that there is a problem or that you have a question will let your sponsor guide you to the solutions. If you stay quiet, they won’t know how and where to help you, and the relationship can easily dissolve.
Build trust: Once your sponsor has had the opportunity to work with you, they will understand your style and work ethic. This comes back to being reliable and continuing to communicate any issues that arise when working with your sponsor.
Be a leader: Whether it’s in your non-profit work or your professional career, use the skills and kindness that you have received through experience, mentorship and your sponsor to be a leader in your community, workplace and business. Just as your sponsor has done for you, help those you supervise to reach their goals, inspire them to make a difference and work hard together.
Jen Giang is an active networker who is fine-tuning her skills as a board member of the Vietnamese Canadian Professional Association and a volunteer with the Project Management Institute.
Two types of professional advocates: sponsor vs mentor
Mentor: A mentor is someone who has both professional and life experience, and who can formally or informally help you to build the skills, qualities and confidence that will advance your career. They will guide you on how to open your network within and outside of your field. Mentors tend to help you craft your career vision, and will provide feedback and suggestions. A mentor might:
• Be someone within or outside your industry
• Provide weekly or monthly meet-ups or phone calls
• Help with interview preparation
• Provide encouragement when you’re in doubt
Sponsors: A sponsor is someone who can directly influence your career. They have a vested interest in your career advancement and see you as their protégé, and will be willing to invest time in training you and pushing you towards your career vision. Sponsors will lend you their network and make new connections for you. They advocate for you, usually using their own reputation to give you exposure. A sponsor:
• Is someone who you directly work with in your current job, or in a volunteer organization, and who understands your skills and how you work
• Delivers constant feedback on your work
• Provides tasks and opportunities that challenge you, but will help build up your skills
• Takes you along to meetings and includes you in projects