When thinking about how to develop in our careers, most of us tend to focus on promotions, projects, courses, certifications. We seek out expanded roles, more senior titles, extra money. We overlook one very key piece of the learning puzzle: proactively surrounding ourselves with people who will push us to succeed in unexpected ways and, in so doing, build genuinely rich, purposeful lives of growth, excellence, and impact.
Back in the 1990s, when I was working full-time as a partner in our executive search firm, I pursued one such friend—a leading researcher and writer—and cultivated the relationship for several years. And then, in 1998, during a walk along the Charles River in Cambridge, he surprised me with a challenge. He suggested that, in addition to my client practice and internal leadership roles at Egon Zehnder, I could find even more meaning (and have a larger reach) by using my knowledge of and passion for talent-spotting and development to also become a writer, teacher, and public speaker. I took his advice, and it has drastically changed my life, both professionally and personally.
We typically spend at least two decades in our formal education and, in developed countries, hundreds of thousands of dollars. We carefully choose our places of employment and invest significant time and effort in training within them. However, few of us engage in a deliberate, determined search for those wise individuals who, through their inspiration and advice, can literally make us new.
My dynamic circle of advisers and confidantes has included, in addition to my wife María and my Charles River friend, several other academics in the United States, an undergraduate professor in Argentina, a McKinsey director in Spain, and colleagues working in Egon Zehnder offices across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. They have, throughout my career, successively inspired me into different possibilities I would never had envisioned, from teaching statistics to applying for an MBA, from becoming a strategic consultant to spending three decades and taking on global leadership roles in executive search, from publishing books to teaching executives at Harvard.
They have been companions on my journey, offering honest feedback, helping me to discover new identities and pushing me to become a highly different yet significantly better version of myself. How can you find a similar group? The following guidelines should help:
Think about the people who inspire you. These can be teachers of certain disciplines; inventors; entrepreneurs; business, social, or public leaders. I have always been moved and inspired by specific people, not just abstract professions. I “met” them originally in many cases by reading their work or about them, but also via social media and at conferences.
Don’t be afraid to chase. Conferences are a great place to get inspired, approach, and start a relationship with some of the people you’ve identified. Likewise, contacting even top academics is usually much easier than you think. Other cases may require a much more determined investment. For example, I flew back and forth from Buenos Aires to a little town in Massachusetts just to meet my Charles River friend. While this double red-eye may sound excessive, think how little time commitment it was compared to what we invest in our education, or to the opportunity cost and frustration of a poor career choice or wrong job decision.
Aim for a mix of people inside and outside your organization. Lots of healthy change can and should ideally happen within your own company. However, external contacts can potentially have the benefit of greater independence, a broader perspective with radically new horizons, as well as potential connections across both worlds which will benefit everyone.
Be candid about the reason for your interest. Most truly great people live their lives with genuine passion and want to expand their missions. Most times, they will be delighted to both inspire you and help you see how to close the gap between dream and reality.
Ask them specifically about how to get started. After suggesting my new potential persona, my Charles River friend gave me some invaluable advice about what I had to do. He said to me: “You need three Cs: capability, which you have; connectivity, which at least initially you can do through the global network of your firm; and credibility, which you don’t have yet. In order to achieve it, you need to publish a great article in a credible magazine and ideally a book.” He then put me in touch with a senior editor at HBR, with whom I worked to make that first article happen.
Proactively offer them help. These great companions who lead us to greater lives deserve our very best. I have always offered them that, with no strings attached. That included becoming a pro bono assistant professor, conducting intensive research for a full year for someone’s new book, becoming the critical reader of a best-selling author, and much more. And whenever I get a message from them, I drop everything I’m doing and respond right away. I have constantly done this out of gratitude but, as always, I also gained in the form of more learning, opportunities, and deeper friendships.
Have crucial conversations in the right settings. Meeting face-to-face with no distractions will help you reach a level of intimacy which simply can’t achieve remotely. I would add that many of my life-changing moments have occurred while walking with my trusted friends in beautiful surroundings – whether by a river, in the countryside, on the beach, along a snow-covered mountain, or across peaceful villages. One of my Egon Zehnder colleagues and I have done this in more than 30 different parts of the world. The combination of exercise and nature makes me particularly energetic, enthusiastic and positive – and therefore more willing to consider new possibilities.
Don’t hesitate to ask the truly big questions. What shall I do with my life? What really motivates me? What am I doing that I really don’t like to do? While pondering these questions, in addition to checking my capability, connectivity and credibility, I also engage my friends in conversation about three other Cs: contemplation (Am I in touch with my inner compass?), compassion (Do I show it for myself and others?), and companions (Who else might inspire me to new growth?)
Proactively seeking out and cultivating those who will help us become better versions of ourselves is, by a wide margin, the key for living a truly happy and meaningful life. I sincerely hope these guidelines help you.
About the author:
Claudio Fernández-Aráoz is a senior adviser at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, and the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who
This article first appeared in the Drucker Forum Series in Harvard Business Review