Relax, you’ve probably got a career mentor already

A reflective bit of professional advice for my younger self

The words ‘find a mentor’ can be found on nearly every list of advice for young professionals. If you want to get ahead — they say — make sure you have a coach in your corner.

Photo by Budgeron Bach on Pexels

The thing is, there’s no singular definition of what mentorship should look like. Perhaps your manager neglects your career development, the business couldn’t care less, you find yourself on an island. Years pass, you worry. Have you fallen behind?

There’s an anxiety hovering, like you missed an important fork on the trail.

Like so many of my peers, I don’t feel like I ever fell into some perfectly sculpted mentor-mentee relationship. Yet, when looking back, I find that my own tribe of mentors (hi, Tim) has been gathering the whole time.

Some of the most important career lessons I‘ve learned were through happenstance, exposure and as a reward for seeking opportunities and consistently asking to be included. And yeah, a lot of the lessons were defined by what not to do.

Only upon reflection do these experiences become crystallised.

This collection of lessons is a nod to those who through intent or not, left a mark on my career. What follows is anonymous, but to those of you who played a part in my development who may be reading this, I appreciate your guidance (even if it was an accident!)

Remember to be human

If you manage someone directly, their well-being should be a priority. I’ve come to understand this as non-negotiable.

One of my mentors illustrated this well. They didn’t have the ability to control every situation, let alone address every concern I had. I knew though, that I could count on them to keep me in the loop. I genuinely felt heard.

I learned that you should always have your team’s back, know what’s blocking their progress, and take responsibility. Even if you don’t see eye to eye with them.

When you feel like the company you work for cares about you, it’s really a human therein. Remember that while business isn’t personal, it can often feel that way. Remember to be that human for your people.

You are not your target market

When I began working with Finder, I was excited about the prospect of putting creative energy into a brand that was largely undefined. I’ve got high standards for good design, meaningful branding. I was hungry to put them to use.

What I came to understand — through some difficult challenges and ideas that fell short — is that despite the business’ desire to posture as more cutting-edge, it simply didn’t align with our product-market fit at the time. The brand wasn’t ready yet.

We found much greater success leaning into the taste of the late majority, with brand assets and creative that wasn’t always my cup of tea. But it worked, really well, and I quickly learned to lean into it. Sometimes an annoyingly powerful earworm of a jingle is your best asset.

So whether you’re building a product, a brand or a marketing campaign, get off your high horse. You’re not always trying to engage the early adopters that you might identify with.

The grass is definitely greener

The happy professional, progressing through the entirety of their career at one firm, with no hiccups, is a unicorn. Being comfortable in a role or at a single company has its perks, but when you’re young, it’s a double edged sword. On the other side? Complacency. Missed opportunity.

In my early career, it felt strange seeing senior colleagues resign from what seemed like great positions. Now, I’m on the other side of the coin, encouraging younger colleagues to keep their options open, and value themselves and their output much more highly.

You might swing hard and miss, but that’s the nature of a career.

This image is cliché as they come, but it’s straight up facts.

The years I spent working at the California State University taught me the dangers of being complacent in a bureaucracy. I was told once by a senior colleague that he could see me in his shoes, working there as a ‘lifer’ aiming for a state pension.

I was never more motivated to get the hell out.

Show ’em, don’t tell ‘em

If you appreciate knowing the big picture to succeed in your role, it’s important to be visible, inquisitive and audacious. These qualities unlock access and context that compound your value as a source of ideas and solutions. Don’t overstep your bounds, but push them.

To say executive-level leaders are incredibly busy is an understatement. If ever you are given the opportunity to pitch something, don’t waste it.

This is where knowing your audience becomes crucial. Not everybody has a readme (we probably should), so you might need to do some digging. Do they prefer a deck? A full spread of sketches? A demo of a minimum-viable-product?

Some may say that the pen is mightier than the sword but some CEOs really, really like swords.

A Chinese proverb visualised by Jack Butcher

Never stop learning

One of my former managers made it an explicit goal to dedicate themself to learning a new skill each year. These skills weren’t necessarily part of their job description, but when put back into his workflow, they helped them unblock and unlock new projects.

It’s no secret that we learn best by doing. So make sure you’re putting them into practice. It’s a pretty obvious hack to introduce things you’re trying to learn into your job. You’re getting the development you sought, and getting paid. Nice.

Naturally, we all absorb new skills and perspectives, but doing so in a time-bound, focused and intentional manner ensures you’ll stay fresh, at the top of your game.

Titles and job descriptions really don’t matter

I’ve been lucky to have been in companies and roles that allowed me to dabble in things well outside the realm of my job description. When looking back, I realise this wasn’t an accident. I’ve always made a point to seek greater context, and think bigger picture.

Place your job description here. Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

A former colleague and executive saw something in these tendencies, and seconded me into a leading role in a brand-defining project. This project turned out to guide a lot of where my career ended up going.

Not every business is conducive to pivoting slightly within the org structure, but there’s always opportunity if you seek it.

Build in public — Does your company have an internal knowledge-base you can contribute to? Arrange some informational interviews, and spearhead collaborative projects with other people and teams.

In an increasingly flat and transparent professional world, traditional barriers are crumbling. Do your part in breaking the antiquated corporate structure down. Shoot your shot.

You bring a unique skillset and perspective to your role, no matter what you do. Don’t take your visibility for granted, even if it’s uncomfortable for you to toot your own horn a bit.

The door is always open

I’ve come to learn that I prefer working in open-ended, growth-focused environments. I depend on access, context and collaboration to do my best work.

You’ll surely apply your own lens to the above lessons. But if you take away any one thing, it’s that you don’t necessarily need a formal mentor to learn and to grow.

I still hope that picture perfect idea of a mentor might serendipitously waltz into my life. Years into my career, I’m even more actively pursuing it.

But if it never manifests, I know I’ll be OK.

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Franko Ali

A nature-loving, multi-disciplinary creative operator and proud generalist based in Sydney.