Most of us have at least one person we can turn to for job advice—a former boss, a work wife, our mom. And while all these relationships are crucial, they might not be the most beneficial ones when you're ready to propel your career forward. According to experts, we all need to seek out players who can truly wield influence. "Whether you call it a career coach or an adviser, it's so important for women in their thirties, forties—even early in their twenties—to cultivate the right relationships, because this sets the tone for the rest of their career," says Minda Harts, founder of The Memo, a New York City–based all-female career development company. We identify the four experts you should have in your arsenal to ensure professional success.
You know the woman in your friend group who has a natural knack for bringing like-minded people together? The one who has more Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts than anyone you know, and who's usually the first to say, "I know just the person you should meet!"? This is your connector. She's going to be the one who makes introductions to help you get in front of the people who have the power to advance your career in ways a mentor may not be able to, says Melissa Potter Forde, CEO of Think Big Think You, a personal branding and relationship management agency. "A mentor is more of a guide—someone with subject area expertise or who's in a position of power that you want to model your behavior after," says Forde. "A connector, on the other hand, not only introduces you to people of value within her own network, but she also encourages you to explore those friends, coworkers, sorority sisters or frat brothers in your own circles to let them know that you're seeking an opportunity."
Speak up! "A connector helps you further your success by creating a pipeline of proactive helpers who can take you to the next level, but closed mouths don't get fed," says Forde. Proof? One of her clients had a passion for cooking and had dreamed of being on the Food Network. But he had never told anyone at his federal government job about his ambition until, one night, he invited a few high-level coworkers over for dinner and showed off his skills. "Turns out, one of the people he'd known for 15 years knew a producer at the Food Network," says Forde. "They recently shot a pilot. In order for people to help you, they have to know who you are and where you want to be."
You've no doubt heard the statistic that in 2014, Black women made just 63 cents for every dollar that white men earned in the workplace, according to a recent report from the American Association of University Women. What's more, men initiate one and a half times as many negotiations as women, says a 2013 preliminary study. Having a skilled negotiator on your team can help you navigate this dicey terrain, says Harts. "The number one service we provide is salary negotiations," she says. "Our clients know they're working their butts off, but they're afraid to ask for more. Talking to friends is always good, but if all your friends are at the same stage as you, it's going to be hard to get the best advice." Harts's team pairs clients with advisers who can help them research competitive salaries for any given job and role-play to increase their confidence at the bargaining table. (They even have off-the-record meetings with HR representatives to cross-check industry standards.) In order to seek out a negotiator in your own life, Harts suggests tapping an older colleague who has insight into the salary range for your next position. You need someone who can candidly tell you—with reasonable certainty—that you're either being lowballed or receiving a competitive offer.
Don't settle for the first offer. When a hiring manager hits you with the line "This is the highest we can go" on the first pitch, don't believe it. In many cases, there's wiggle room. "A lot of people don't know that almost every company has a pot of money sitting to the side for salary negotiations," says Harts, who once won herself a six-figure salary by lobbying for more. "They know some people are just going to take what they get and walk away, while a few others are going to ask for the high end."
While mentors are great at giving feedback, they may not use their influence to help you get ahead in tangible ways. That's where a sponsor comes in. "Most people don't even know what a sponsor is," says Rubina F. Malik, Ph.D., assistant professor at Morehouse College. "Sponsorship requires a different type of exchange [than what you see in a traditional mentoring relationship]. When someone sponsors you, that individual actually puts his or her reputation on the line and says, "This person is somebody in my circle, and I would really like you to consider their résumé."" While it might sound like semantics, according to the Harvard Business Review, women from the Kellogg School of Management 2015 Executive Management Program reported that 86 percent of the time, they were more likely to get promoted when they had a sponsor instead of a mentor. A key differential: Sponsorship is inherently more transactional—a quid pro quo of sorts, says Malik. Your sponsor helps you land a plum promotion, but also expects that, at some point, he or she will benefit from the interaction. "Women have a tendency not to ask for endorsements because we don't know how to sell ourselves or don't want to appear helpless," says Malik. "But men ask for what they want. They'll say, "Look, I want X," and then their sponsor starts making things happen for them because they've asked for it."
When seeking a sponsor, go beyond just thinking about your boss, says Malik. If your organization does volunteer work, sign up. Who knows? You could be building a Habitat for Humanity house next to your company's president. And don't be afraid to look outside for sponsorship. "All my sponsors aren't academics," says Malik. "They might hear about opportunities people in your circle don't know. I have a sponsor who is always introducing me to folks or telling me where to go like, "Hey, take this workshop. I think it would help you."" That kind of support is invaluable.
The Accountability Partner
Stop us if this sounds familiar: You said you were going to make ten new high-value connections on LinkedIn, or put together your pitch for a raise, or write that proposal for an ambitious new project or send out your résumé to those job postings you saw, but somehow you just haven't gotten around to it yet. And, besides, you're busy. Before you know it, days, weeks, even months have passed with very little progress made. Here's why: The main problem with goal setting is that most of us don't have someone to hold us accountable if we slack off, making it easier to push goals to that mythical day when we'll suddenly have more time (read: never). "Accountability is all about creating a structure for success," says Angela Jia Kim, founder of Savor the Success, a top-tier career network for businesswomen that organizes accountability groups. "When you meet, each person should get about 30 minutes to discuss their thing. It should go something like, "I've moved forward and this is how I did it" or "I'm stuck." Then share some solutions and establish commitments for your next coffee date." And set consequences if you flake on meetings, miss deadlines or start lagging. "There has to be some skin in the game," says Kim. That's the only way it works. "In a way, it's kind of a pride thing like, Well, I've got to show up, too. I can't be the one not pulling my weight,?" adds Kim.
Pick your partner wisely. "It has to be someone who really excites you," says Kim. "Do you respect that person? Does that person really show up? Do you feel on fire after your time together? Do not become accountability partners with a complainer, a gossiper or someone who is perpetually stuck, because you are the sum of the top five people you hang out with. Make sure you surround yourself with people you admire."
Jihan Thompson is a writer and editor in New York City.