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Diversifying Your Professional Social Portfolio

Many of us are probably familiar with a financial portfolio, a collection of investments usually consisting of bonds, stocks, cash, and other assets. The need to diversify them reduces the exposure to financial risk. This logic is also applicable outside of our investment funds. The need to diversify our professional social circles is equally important, not only to climb the social ladder to success but to gain meaningful perspectives on career and company trajectory. Additionally, doing so can increase your awareness of company/office culture, acquire insight into industry knowledge, build authentic relationships, and attract and retain a supportive network.

Before we begin, let's share some definitions of those who might occupy your professional social portfolio. Think of these categories as different investments.

  • Mentor – Someone who formally or informally provides guidance, coaching, advice, motivation, and sometimes emotional support. They might also help you establish connections to build your network.

  • Sponsor – Someone who advocates on your behalf and leverages their influence to help you gain significant and noteworthy assignments and/or promotions.

  • Colleague – Someone who works at the same organization as you.

  • Peer – Someone you work with or in the same industry as you (e.g., you both are accountants). Generally, you might be in a similar career status and trajectory. This person can also be a colleague.

Although there is no immediate risk of your professional social portfolio losing value per se, there is always an opportunity for it to gain value by adding to it. Much of the conversation around career relationships is dominated by the need to have mentors and sponsors, and rightfully so. No one is better equipped to aid you than someone who has journeyed on the same path and found success. Nevertheless, there is power in colleague and peer relationships.

Colleague relationships can help navigate work environments, increase productivity, and drive innovation through collaboration, cross-training, and sharing new techniques. Peer relationships can offer the same advantages as colleague relationships, but these relationships can become more personal, therefore more information and transparency are involved. For example, although some companies and states are doing better with pay transparency, like Microsoft and Colorado, many do not share salary information with potential or current employees. With authentic and genuine peer relationships, you can leverage your circle for advice and insights on industry standards on topics like pay to determine if you are making a competitive salary and to advocate for yourself. In my early career, I befriended a colleague, who became an industry peer. We developed a trustworthy bond, which led to a conversation on pay equality and transparency. We discovered there was a $10,000 difference in our salaries. The most credentialed and experienced person was earning less.

It's important to build both types of connections to develop your skills and expertise as a professional but to also gauge your value and ensure you are fairly compensated.

Mentors are a significant asset to have in your portfolio. For reasons listed in the definition above, mentors offer reliable advice and coaching to aid you in your career. Like all investments, it is important to diversify your mentors. You get different insights from different people. Some of the best advice I received from a mentor is that not everyone can offer advice to help you reach a certain level in your career if they are not at that level or do not aspire to be there someday. Some mentors are great at helping develop soft skills, some are phenomenal at coaching you through your career, and others offer practical and essential support when needed. All of them are central to your portfolio.

As a professional, especially as a Black woman, diversifying my social portfolio has been crucial in navigating my corporate career. It was the encouragement and support of my mentors, colleagues, and peers that increased my confidence to take my sabbatical.

How does your professional social portfolio look? Is it time to do some investing?

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