Advice from a Mentor: The Best Investment You Can Make Early in Your Career

Nov 4, 2020

This article is written by Brad Falkof, Partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and a mentor at The Garage.

If you were given 50 seeds and told that one, or maybe more, of these seeds will germinate into trees that could sustain you throughout your life with branches for fuel, fruit for food and wood for shelter, would you take the time to plant the seeds?  If you took the trouble to plant the seeds, would you keep an eye on your seedlings and regularly water them? 

This gardening proposition seems simple enough when the rewards are so clear.  You don’t know which of the seeds will grow into mature trees, but you’re willing to care for all of the seeds in the hope that one or more of them will germinate. So why don’t students treat their contacts in this same manner?

First, you may ask, who are your contacts?  They are, simply, people you meet who, through their experience, business relationships or standing in the community, can be a resource for advancing your business or career.  With this broad of a definition, almost everyone you meet is a potential contact. The obvious ones are your teachers, mentors, and even fellow students.  But consider as well that family friend you met at a party in your parents’ backyard, or the young professional you met last week at a local bar, or the neighbor down the street who has seen you grow from toddler to college student.  They are all people who may, with just a little bit of effort, grow into valuable contacts.

It is too easy to say, “I don’t know what these people have to offer me right now and I have lots  of time, so I’ll worry about developing my contacts later.”  That’s a mistake.  The obvious problem with this approach is that you are already limiting the number of seeds you can sow.  If life only gives you a finite number of opportunities to develop strong and valuable contacts, why would you want to limit that number? 

The other problems with delaying your development of contacts are more subtle.  When you are in college or have just graduated, no one expects anything from you in exchange for the kind of help a contact can provide.  References, introductions, mentorships, financial guidance or assistance, and just plain old sound advice based on real life experiences are all readily available from your contacts now, without any expectation of a return favor.  The further removed you are from your college days, and the more you are identified as a potential contact for others, the more transactional the relationship becomes between you and your contacts.  As time passes, the more there is an implied obligation to reciprocate.  You ask a new contact for an introduction and they want to know what you can do for them.  If what is essentially free today will cost you tomorrow, why not take advantage of the opportunity now?

Further, you should always reach out beyond your inner circle to get new ideas or opportunities. Students are often unsure what their career path is going to be.  They don’t think about developing contacts because they don’t know what types of contacts they should be looking for.  These students are missing the point.  While in college you have exceptional opportunities to meet people with very different perspectives.   Those opportunities become harder to find later in life. Strengthen the relationships you have but also seek out people who can provide new perspectives. 

Finally, remember, the future CEO of Boeing may be sitting at a table (at least pre-COVID) next to you and right now would gladly have a cup of coffee with you.  By the time that person is the head of North American defense programs for Boeing, and has been identified as a rising star, that person is much less likely to take a random meeting and has many people hounding them for networking purposes.  In other words, your opportunity to develop certain valuable contacts may have an expiration date.

Once you have identified a contact, how do you nurture the relationship? This is as much an art form as it is a science, and not every contact demands the same action. There are, however, a few common requirements. In almost all cases, for example, the process starts with a heartfelt thank you. Thank you for being my mentor. Thank you for guiding me through a particularly difficult class. Thank you for the introduction you made for me. Thank you for spending time with me so I could learn more about your area of expertise. A thank you takes almost no effort, but goes a long way towards developing a contact.

We also know that nurturing contacts requires ongoing “touches”. The “thank you” is but the first of many touches you will need to maintain your contacts.  For some contacts, regular emails to update your contact regarding your career may be all that is necessary to maintain the relationship.  For others, an occasional call to say hello may be enough.  For still others, you may want to reach out and suggest getting together for coffee or lunch.  Each touch helps you to grow your relationship with the contact.  Don’t be afraid you have nothing to share with someone who has been out of school for a while.  You will be surprised by the number of people who remain interested in learning about your favorite classes, clubs, internships, or student projects.

Remember, at the beginning you were offered only 50 seeds.  No one promised you that all of the seeds would germinate.  You had to trust that at least one would grow.  Contacts work in the same way.  Many, indeed most, will never grow into life changing relationships (although, because these are people and not trees, there is still much that can be gained from meeting people and developing new friendships).  Ignore your contacts and they are certain to wither.  Nurture them and you can watch them grow into resources for furthering your business or career.

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