12.2 How to Develop, Expand, and Maintain Professional Relationships

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the three types of mentors to develop.
  2. Learn how to find a mentor and be a good mentee.
  3. Learn other relationships to cultivate outside your immediate boss and mentors.
  4. Get strategies for relationship building.

Get a Mentor Who Is Not Your Boss (Get Several)

Most of you have experienced the value of mentors because you already have had someone in your life—a family member or a teacher—who has guided and supported you. While your boss can guide and support you professionally, it is ideal to get mentorship beyond your boss for several reasons:

  • You want to be able to ask questions freely and share doubts and concerns. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to ask questions of your immediate boss, but sometimes you will want to test an idea or probe an issue before bringing it up to the person who decides your next project, promotion, and raise.
  • You benefit from multiple perspectives. Your boss’s immediate concern is the performance of his or her team and area. You want to have someone who can be a more objective outsider and is not too close to the situation.
  • You establish a relationship outside your immediate area and can therefore learn more about the organization and expand your reach. It’s important to know what is going on in the organization as a whole, and a mentor can provide valuable information.

Don’t try to develop a mentor relationship with your boss’s boss. This can be awkward because your boss might think you are trying to leapfrog or exclude him or her. In addition, you lose the ability to talk more candidly. Regardless of how objectively you try to state things, if you are raising a concern or even a question about your boss, it denigrates him or her in the eyes of the person who assigns your boss the next project, promotion, or raise.

You do not need to have just one mentor. It is unrealistic to think that one person has the time or knowledge to provide all the coaching and support you need. Consider cultivating three types of mentors:

  • Guardian angelAs used in this context, it is what most people think of when they hear the word mentor. Typically a senior person, at least two levels above you, your guardian angel supports and protects your career.
  • ShepherdAs used in this context, it is someone who knows the ins and outs of the organization and can serve as a guide. A shepherd can be your peer or even junior to you.
  • Board of directorsThe body of advisers for a public corporation. The directors do not work directly for the corporation; rather, they are independent and represent the shareholders. In this context, board of directors is our term for mentors of different backgrounds and expertise who can advise you on different career areas.

A guardian angel is what most people think of when they hear the word, “mentor.” A guardian angel is your supporter and protector. Typically, a guardian angel is two or more levels above you to have the credibility and experience to help you. Your guardian angel looks out for plum assignments that might be beneficial to your career. Your guardian angel is experienced in how to be successful at the organization and can advise you on pitfalls to avoid or opportunities to take advantage of. If you have questions about troubleshooting a sticky office situation, your guardian angel will be able to help. For our new teacher in the earlier example, his guardian angel might be a senior teacher or even administrator. This person might propose learning tools or conferences the new teacher could use or attend. This guardian angel also might suggest the new teacher for a committee or other special assignment to raise his profile at the school.

A shepherd is typically not much more senior and may even be more junior to you. A shepherd knows the ins and outs of the organization and can guide you. We all know someone who is the social epicenter of a particular group. For your professional workplace, that is a shepherd who can help shortcut your learning curve. The shepherd knows who is influential, who might be trouble, and who is the best person to talk to for a variety of requests. The shepherd would be a good person with whom to brainstorm about possible other mentors. For our new teacher in the earlier example, his shepherd might be another teacher at the school, who doesn’t need to be of a similar subject or grade, but someone more connected to the culture of the school and who can share the inside scoop.

A board of directors for a company (or board of trusteesAn analogous group to the board of directors, but for a nonprofit. The trustees do not work for the nonprofit, but are a separate entity to provide outside advice and support, including financial and fund-raising support. for a nonprofit) is typically composed of people with different backgrounds and expertise—finance, legal, human resources (HR), operations, marketing, and so forth. The board provides a resource for advice and counsel to the company or nonprofit in a variety of areas. Similarly, you will need advice and counsel on a variety of areas—career advancement, communication and presentation, work and life balance, career change, and so forth. No one person will be an expert in all issues. Instead of relying on one person, it would be helpful to cultivate a board of directors, each with a specific area of expertise important to you. It is ideal to have mentors both inside and outside your organization and even industry. This way, you have a diversity of perspectives. The new teacher might get mentorship from another teacher of a similar subject or grade to provide pedagogical advice. If he has an interest in using more multimedia or innovative teaching approaches, he might ask for guidance from a teacher outside his subject area who knows a lot about audiovisual technology. Even a school operations staff member might be a member of this teacher’s “board” to inform him how the school functions.

To Attract Good Mentors, Be a Good Mentee

Mentorships are close relationships, so it is ideal when they develop naturally. Sometimes, organizations have formal mentor programs, and these are great resources for meeting people and sometimes for establishing mentorships. But don’t rely on a formal mentor program because your employer might not have one or the match you get may not be ideal. Instead, be proactive and use the following tips to help you seek your own mentors:

  • Think about what you need and want in your mentors.
  • Meet with different people who may fit your ideal to see if a relationship develops.
  • Try to expand the relationship to meet more frequently or discuss things more deeply.
  • Be responsive and helpful to your mentors.

When you are just starting in an organization, find a shepherd to give you a lay of the land. You need to get acclimated to your new environment. Then think about your goals for next year, two years out, and so forth, and think about what you need to know or what skills you need to develop. This gives you an indication of where you may benefit from mentorship.

Identify people in whom you are genuinely interested who might be able to provide advice and counsel toward your goals. Meet with them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you can work on a project with them, that is another way to start a relationship. You should not automatically assume someone will agree to mentor you or would even be a good mentor. Right now, you just want to see who you enjoy being with and who can also provide the mentorship you seek.

For those people who might be possible mentors to you, you do not need to ask them as formally as you would a marriage proposal—that is, no bended knee before saying, “Will you mentor me?” Instead, let them know that their advice and insights in past conversations have been helpful and ask if you can reach out to them on a more regular basis to continue the conversations. Sometimes people will say they don’t have the time to commit to something regularly, but sometimes people will be flattered and enthusiastic. You will need to meet with many people before finding the right mentors, so don’t be concerned if your first efforts are not fruitful. At the very least, you are meeting people and practicing networking and relationship building.

When you do secure a mentor, you want to be a good mentee. Mentorship is a relationship, so you are equally responsible for its success. You are initiating the relationship, so be mindful of how the mentor likes to communicate and at what frequency. Is it better for him or her to meet at breakfast or after work, rather than during the day? Does your mentor want to have a sit-down meeting with an agenda or a quick conversation when you both have the time? Be proactive about scheduling the meetings so that the mentor isn’t doing the work to maintain the relationship.

Get to know your mentor as a whole person. Find ways to be helpful to him or her. Many mentors enter these relationships because they want to give back. At the very least, let your mentor know about the impact he or she is making by providing results updates—what happened when you took the advice they gave? If you know your mentor has a specific hobby or interest, find a helpful article or recommendation to support that interest.

Remember that your needs and your mentor’s availability change over time. Mentorships evolve, so if you find that you have less to discuss and the relationship has run its course, schedule less frequent meetings. Turn the mentorship into a friendship, and steer the discussions more personally or outside the question-advice format. Treat your mentorships like two-way relationships with give and take.

Develop Professional Relationships with Different Companies, Departments, and Levels

A strong professional network is not just about mentorships. You also have colleagues who provide emotional support and more direct support, perhaps, on joint projects. You may be in a role that has customers. You may be working with consultants or vendors. Your job may require you to partner with other organizations. For your own knowledge and expertise, it is helpful to know about organizations and people outside your own employer. Organizations evolve over time, so it is helpful to know people at all levels—your peer could become your manager, or you may be asked to lead a team composed of peers.

Knowing people in different departments, at all levels, both inside and outside your employer, ensures that you have a diversity in perspectives about your role, your organization, and your industry. You may have a very specific role right now, but as your responsibilities expand, you will likely have to work with more and more people. It is helpful to establish relationships before you are forced to work together.

Our new teacher would want to know people in his school but also in other schools. If he teaches in a public school, it would be helpful to know people in independent, charter, and other schools. People in the school’s administrative department or other school governing body would also be helpful contacts. Academics and experts in education, donors and supporters of education organizations, and parent organizers are other potential contacts for a teacher.

Be Proactive in Your Outreach, Communication, and Follow-Up

You need to be thoughtful and proactive about relationship-building to have quality relationships with mentors, colleagues in different departments, colleagues at different levels, and people outside your employer:

  • Set aside specific time to expand your professional network.
  • Work on your communication skills and style.
  • Follow up over time to ensure relationships develop naturally and are not rushed.

People are busy, and you are busy. If you wait for an opportune time to start building your network, you will not find one. There is no urgency to day-to-day networking, so it will be set aside for a later time that never comes. Instead, schedule a few hours each week with the goal of expanding your professional network. You might set aside one lunch hour per week to eat with a different colleague. You might join a professional association and attend their meetings and mixers. One new teacher volunteered to be her school’s union representative. She wanted to learn about the union, and though she was new, she was the only one who volunteered, so it was great exposure in her very first year. You might play on your employer’s softball league. You might volunteer to organize the office holiday party. Many opportunities exist to meet a diverse mix of professionals both inside and outside your employer, but you have to consciously set aside the time to do this.

Are you comfortable introducing yourself to people and telling them what you do? Networking is one of the six job search steps, so you probably have worked on your networking pitch to get a job, but in the daily work context, your pitch is about what you do now. Plan and practice what you will say.

If the thought of joining a professional association and going to meetings makes you uncomfortable, consider joining with a more extroverted buddy. The softball league or a volunteer committee might provide a structured outlet for your networking. Find a colleague who isn’t shy and ask them to introduce you to people. People are often very happy to help and may not realize you are shy. Let your boss know that you are trying to meet people, and ask him or her to introduce you to people.

Once you meet people, make time to maintain and expand relationships over time. It is impossible to schedule regular live contact with everyone in your professional network—colleagues, customers, vendors, management, former colleagues (as you progress in your career), and people in your related function or industry. However, you can keep in touch with phone calls and e-mails. The same spirit of generosity applies as you expand and deepen relationships—maintain contact without asking for anything in return.

Key Takeaways

  • Mentors are an important part of your professional network to provide advice and a sounding board for ideas and concerns.
  • Do not use your boss or your boss’s boss as your mentor, so you can candidly speak about your issues and get an objective, outside perspective.
  • Several types of mentors are available: guardian angel, shepherd, and board of directors. Ideally, you have several mentors.
  • You develop strong mentorships naturally by meeting with people and letting relationships grow. Be a good mentee by being proactive and flexible about scheduling, and by being responsive to your mentor’s needs.
  • In addition to mentors, you want to develop relationships with people at all levels, in different departments, and inside and outside your company.
  • Build relationships proactively by setting aside time to meet people and practicing how you will introduce yourself.


  1. Do you currently have mentors in your life? Pick one area of your life that you wish to improve, and try to find a mentor for that area.
  2. Think about your one-year, two-year, and longer-term goals. What areas do you already know would benefit from some mentoring? Think about who might be ideal mentors for those areas. Can you start meeting these people now? Remember that you want to have mentors both inside and outside your employer, so you can start even before you are hired.
  3. Look at the suggestions for building your professional network and decide which ones appeal to you. If the idea of a membership group appeals to you, can you join something now? Professional associations often have student chapters or other groups for people new to the career.