When we plan our professional development, there are lots of tools and techniques to help us evaluate our knowledge and skills and develop our understanding and abilities in different aspects of leadership. One thing we don’t always consider is the people we have around us and how they could help us to develop. I’m not just talking about people we work with directly, those we line-manage or are accountable to, but also those in our wider professional circle: perhaps those we studied with or worked with in previous jobs or departments, those we’ve met and been inspired by at CPD events or someone visible in the veterinary media. They could be from inside or outside our organisation – but they are people we look to for inspiration, advice and guidance. To help build this circle and get the most from our professional networks, it’s time to consider who is in your SPACE: who supports, promotes, advises, challenges and empowers you? Let’s consider each one in turn.
The person offering support is likely to be a close friend, partner or family member. They may not be part of your working life at all, but they provide encouragement, reassurance and understanding, especially after tough days or during difficult periods. You can call them to let off steam, knowing that they will always be there with a listening ear, words of encouragement and quite possibly a bottle of Chianti. They can offer a different or “outsider” perspective on things, allowing you to take a step back and see the bigger picture, and they will always support your choices.
The person who promotes you is someone, probably either in your organisation or a close colleague from a previous role, who knows your work and advocates for you both within and outside the organisation. They will talk to others about potential opportunities for you and help ensure that your achievements are recognised and acknowledged. They will write great references for you, support your nomination for awards and generally sing your praises. They are a great person to have in your SPACE if you are reluctant to put yourself forward, even though you are capable of achieving more.
Your advisor is someone knowledgeable in your field to whom you can turn for advice. They can provide guidance based on their own expertise and experience, point you in the direction of further information and make recommendations for courses of action or solutions to problems. With a wealth of relevant knowledge, they are a great person to bounce ideas off or brainstorm solutions to problems: whatever it is, they have probably been there and dealt with it. This role may be fulfilled by several different people for different aspects of your work – for example, you may have one advisor for clinical work and one for your leadership or management role – but their input is invaluable.
The person providing challenge is an exceptionally valuable addition to your SPACE. They fulfil a really important role – but may not actually be aware of it. They may not necessarily be someone you know personally or have worked closely with, but they are someone who causes you to reconsider your ideas and rethink your approach to your work. If they are someone in your team, they will test your skills and cause you to question your assumptions and work differently – not necessarily in a confrontational way, but with the aim of causing you to stop and think. They may even be a rival or competitor. While challenge can be seen as a negative, it’s really important to have someone in your SPACE who will call out your assumptions and, where needed, provoke a reaction. Without them, you risk stagnating, succumbing to groupthink or getting stuck in a rut, and you will find it much more difficult to grow as a leader.
The person who empowers you will usually be a more senior member of your professional community. Their role is to provide opportunities for you, signpost new developments and encourage you as your career progresses. They will often have a coaching role: rather than finding solutions, they know how to ask the right questions and support you in finding your own way forward. If you are less confident, they will help legitimise your ideas and act as a sounding board. Their help will strengthen your convictions and provide the confidence to take the next step.
While some of the people in your own SPACE will have formal roles in your working life – for example, a current or past employer, a line manager or someone you have a coaching or mentoring relationship with – this does not necessarily have to be the case. You may not (or probably won’t) need all five all the time, but they are there should you need them for specific challenges that occur and you can call on them at different levels at different times in your career. For example, if you are considering applying for a promotion, your empowerer might suggest an opening that you hadn’t considered. You might ask your advisor for tips on structuring your CV for the role, your challenger could practise tough interview questions with you and your supporter will be providing moral support and cheering you on. If you are successful, your promoter will be announcing your new role and praising the skills that got you there.
So, here’s the challenge: consider who you have in your SPACE. Are there any gaps? Who could fill them? Seek out those who will support, promote, advise, challenge and empower you – consider having a conversation about how they could help and what input they could have. Identify those who are already providing strong network links in your professional circle – and show your appreciation for the support they provide. And don’t forget that these relationships should work both ways – which of these roles do you fulfil for your own team and those you work with? Great leadership and happy practices result from positive working relationships and a healthy balance of each type of supporter. Make sure you build diverse crews – both in terms of those you employ and those you choose to have around you – in order to get the most benefit for confident professional development in both directions.