Throughout your career, engaging with people may be a particularly valuable strategy, whether in support of your advancement in an existing organization; in contemplating and executing a job or career change or return from hiatus; or in planning for retirement or encore phase. You may be connecting for information, support, feedback, advice, introductions or access to opportunities. We often call these people “our network,” or perhaps we use terms like references, mentors or sponsors. In my experience as a practicing lawyer and as a coach and consultant to lawyers over many years, a common thread can make these connections more helpful and rewarding—the extent to which those people are our advocates. By advocates, I mean people who have seen us do things well. They may be people who have hired us in the past or asked us to participate in some way because of our strengths. This article is about building and reinforcing your advocates throughout your career so that at any point along the career journey, you have a team of advocates on standby to choose from to fulfill the various roles you might need when you need them.
Look back and make a list. Throughout my life, who has seen me do things well? What skills did they see me using? What feedback did they give me at the time, if any? Have they ever offered to help me? Have they ever actually helped me? Keep the list handy so that you now can start adding to the list as you go. Don’t wait for people to give you positive feedback or wait for them to offer to be an advocate. Make a note when you know you have done something well or achieved a particularly effective result—who knows about it? Who was positively impacted by it? Add them to your list.
Some might immediately think of people with whom you have some sort of affiliation—whether through schools, former employers, community work or beyond. People with whom we are affiliated in some way definitely can be reinforcements to our career, however, they can be of limited help if the person cannot truly “advocate” for you. Do keep those connections in mind; in fact, they may serve as a group which forms the basis for making new advocates as discussed below.
Over the years, I have worked with many career coaching clients from traditionally under-represented identity groups within the legal profession, and I encourage all to use this framework as an opportunity to build relationships across gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.; relationships that might otherwise be less likely to happen across differences and can be of professional value. A bit later, I talk about the responsibility when we hold a majority identity to be intentional regarding serving as advocates across difference as well.
Reinforcing the Advocacy Relationship
Once you have your list, think about staying in touch with the people on that list. In the first instance, that might mean connecting via LinkedIn, for example. Beyond that, it might mean finding a reason to be in touch—are you attending this upcoming professional event? Would you like to? Are you interested in co-writing a piece on this issue? Participating in the panel with me? Or think about keeping the advocate updated on your own career. For example, if you have a success, particularly that is related or shows you using effectively the same skills that the advocate knows you for, let the advocate know. This can reinforce and refresh the advocate’s positive impression of you.
Being an Advocate
As that the old saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.” As you move through your career, think about opportunities for you to be an advocate. When you see someone do something well—tell them, let others around them know, be available to share your impression whenever it seems helpful or the person asks for the help. By being an advocate for others, you may create an opportunity for that person to become your advocate.
As noted above, this can be an opportunity for those of us in a majority identity group to take action in support of a more diverse and inclusive legal profession. I work in the diversity and inclusion field and often hear well-intentioned lawyers wondering what they can do to be part of the change many are seeking in our profession. Being an advocate, particularly across difference, is one idea. In essence, it is tied to the concept that has developed over the years of moving from mentor to sponsor. Now might be a moment for you to stop and think—who have I advocated for in the past? Has it been a diverse group of people? How could you advocate for others who are in a traditionally under-represented group in your organization?
Making New Advocates
Some may say it goes without saying that doing things well is a good career strategy. The focus of what I am talking about, however, is doing things well and strategizing about who will be best suited to attest to it later. It can be helpful to be strategic along the way about putting oneself in situations where you know your strengths will shine. When you do, go shine and make note of who is around. Who sees you? Who experiences a positive impact because of what you’ve done? Even if the person does not take the initiative to offer positive feedback at the moment or identify themselves in any way as an advocate, put them on your list.
When the time comes for you to reach out to people for some career reason, scan your list. Who can advocate for what you are looking to do in the future? Who has seen you use the skills you hope to use going forward? Who might help you refresh my recollection on my past experiences for outreach and interviewing? Who might give you an extra boost of self-confidence as you contemplate your professional future? Who has information about or access to the opportunities you are seeking? Who, from your list, seems like the most effective advocates to tap for this phase?
Once you have identified your top choices, reach out. Remind the person of the past experience/success and make the connection between that past experience and your future goal. For example, the outreach might go something like:
I remember working on [xyz] with you and you were complimentary of my [xyz] or I was proud of the result we achieved. I am pursuing [or contemplating]an opportunity to [xyz] and am hoping that you would be open to talking with me on my strategy [or something more specific that you might be asking for].
Throughout our careers, we will have an opportunity to advocate for others and to receive the support of our advocates. In my experience, being strategic about the process can make it all the more rewarding and valuable.
About the Author
Patricia A. Hennessy is the founder and principal of Hennessy Consulting Group, which provides career transition and career management counseling to lawyers. She also is a senior consultant with Fletcher Consulting LLC, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.