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How to Assemble Your Personal Advisory Team


Your career is your most valuable investment. Why not give it a board of directors?

A woman walking on a road, looking ahead
Roman Samborskyi

Imagine trying to run a rather large company all on your own. There are lots of moving parts, plenty of critical factors to consider. But every decision is yours to make — and yours alone. No suite of managers to consult. No board to lean on for advice. It’s all on you. 

No one would run a company like that. The stakes are too high and the risks too great — for shareholders, employees and the survival of the enterprise. That’s why firms are set up the way they are, with a smart CEO surrounded by well-informed people to offer sage advice. 

Now think about you. Your career is like your company. It’s your biggest investment. And you are the CEO of your career. So why are you expected to make all your career decisions by yourself? Why must you overcome every hurdle alone? Why don’t you have a team of advisers to help you, just like a CEO?

Truth is, you should. That’s the idea behind a personal advisory team, or PAT. It can help you make the right career choices as you progress up the corporate ladder and avoid costly missteps that slow your advancement. 

What is a personal advisory team? Essentially, it’s a curated group of trusted experts you can lean on for career advice. That includes decisions on changing jobs, switching industries and tackling major work issues that can affect your career trajectory. PAT members can offer different perspectives, identify opportunities, suggest solutions, pinpoint obstacles and speak candidly about your strengths and weaknesses. 

“They are essentially your career partners,” says Karen Jackson-Cox, executive director of the Career Advancement Centre at Smith School of Business. “If you are looking to advance in your career, a personal advisory team offers a nice structure to guide your decisions,” she adds. 

Why do you need a PAT? The reason is simple: Work is a lot different than it used to be. Careers were once mostly linear. You got a job with a big company, started at the bottom and worked your way up. 

But times have changed. Careers no longer follow a straight line. They’re like a matrix. That’s because job opportunities are more varied than in the past (and, thanks to online job postings and sites such as LinkedIn, more widely available to all); people no longer feel they need to stick with one firm; skills are often transferable so people can more easily hop industries and, with hybrid work, geography; and thanks to technology, an ever-expanding array of roles beckons. (Whoever heard of a cloud architect or social media strategist 15 years ago?)

The result: “There are many more complex decisions one has to make on their career journey,” Jackson-Cox says. “The biggest is finding clarity on your next step. You want to make sure it’s the right one.” By helping vet your options and by offering sober second thoughts, a PAT can help keep your career on the right path. 

But a PAT can do much more than just give career advice. Sometimes issues come up at work that you need help with. Say a major project you’re leading is going wrong. You need to right the ship but aren’t sure how. “In that case, you may want to ask your personal advisory team for perspective,” Jackson-Cox says. 

Since PAT members know you well, they can also provide a constructive assessment of your abilities, explain how others see you, and tell you what areas you excel in and which require more work. (Perhaps you’re a great tactical manager but your presentation skills aren’t yet up to par.)

Setting up your PAT needn’t be difficult. The first step is to identify the people you want on your career’s board of directors. The good news here: Unlike giant corporations, you don’t need a conference table full of advisers. A small team will do, says Jackson-Cox. She suggests starting with these four roles: 

A career coach: This is someone who understands the business of career management to support you in: understanding yourself (strengths, skills, values, interests) and your unique value proposition; establishing your career goals and building a strategy; designing and aligning your personal branding toolkit including resumé, cover letter, LinkedIn profile and professional pitch to answer the ever-challenging “Tell me about yourself” question; building a networking plan to foster meaningful connections; and helping you to make informed career decisions that reflect a holistic view of your strengths, skills, values and interests. You may opt to hire a professional coach, or you may find the right candidate elsewhere. Someone within your company, for example, might be able to offer the advice you need. 

A business expert: This is someone who has walked the career path that you’re pursuing. “The person is working in an industry you want to transfer into or has the kind of job that you want,” says Jackson-Cox. “They will be able to tell you what you need — from a skill level and technical level. They will also understand the nuances of the industry that you’d like to work in or the position you wish to hold.” 

A mentor: In Hollywood, mentors are often portrayed as wise old Warren Buffett types helping plucky twentysomethings find their way. That might make for a good movie plot, but in real life your mentor should be around five to seven years older with more career experience. “It should be someone you can relate to who hasn’t forgotten the career journey that you are on,” says Jackson-Cox. “Mentors don’t have expertise in career matters,” she adds. “They are there to guide you holistically, and you need to be clear about what you’re looking for from them.” 

A friend: Look for someone who knows you well personally and is familiar with your professional path. It should be a person you trust implicitly and who is willing to be honest with you. For example, maybe you want to be a leader, but your friend often hears you constantly complaining about the struggles of managing others. In that case, perhaps a corner office job isn’t for you, after all.

Your advisory team does not need to meet as a group. Rather, one-on-one chats with each member will suffice. Jackson-Cox suggests first inviting each person to be on your team. Explain why you want them aboard, how much you value their expertise, and that you’ll be calling on them from time to time for help. (Buying them lunch occasionally isn’t a bad idea either.)

As your career progresses, you may discover that your PAT makeup needs to change. The business expert you leaned on when you were an assistant brand manager at a consumer packaged goods company in your early twenties, for example, won’t be as helpful when you are in your mid-30s overseeing an IT team at a bank. Regardless of who you put on your PAT, you should get to know them well and, in turn, they should feel a part of your success. 

Of course, if you are serious about career growth, there is another important person to have on your side: a sponsor. 

Don’t confuse a sponsor with a mentor. A sponsor is someone senior inside your company who sees your potential. Some firms have formal sponsor programs matching leaders with emerging talent. If so, ask to join it. If not, look to cultivate a senior leader who can positively influence your career. “A sponsor is really someone who is going to champion your abilities within the company and opens access for career advancement,” Jackson-Cox says. 

Either way, remember that careers aren’t built by chance. They require careful thought, good timing and planning. A PAT can help. But to ensure your talents get noticed, you also need to speak up. 

“In today’s work environment, you have to be an advocate for yourself and your career advancement,” says Jackson-Cox. “You can’t just wait for it to happen.”