When I was in eighth grade, I nearly got into my first and only fight. Not an argument (I do that all the time) but an honest to goodness fist fight. It started simply enough when a ninth grader spilled a glass of water on me in gym class. I am sure it was an accident, but I was having a bad day and I made a snarky comment under my breath. Everything would have been okay except that her friend heard me and she was seriously offended on her friend’s behalf.
With an uncharacteristic lack of judgement, I let it escalate. The next thing I knew they were following me to my next period (science), threatening me the whole time. They promised they would be waiting after school to beat the crap out of me in “the mud hole.” I was fresh out of snarky, I was just scared.
But I shouldn’t have worried. Word spread quickly and by the time science class ended two of my best friends were on either side of me, both taller and much more intimidating than me. They shadowed me the rest of the day and – if I remember it correctly – for as long as it took for the issue to blow over. The ninth grader got bored and went back to her friends. I was safe.
If building relationships in middle school kept me from getting beaten up physically, building a circle of support in my professional life has helped me keep from being bruised in my work. And, in the situations where bruising has been unavoidable, my support circle has helped me pick myself up, brush myself off and carry on.
Early in my career, I don’t think I really understood how much building a ‘fan club’ would matter. I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was just focused on learning how to do my job, delivering good work and staying in front of new opportunities. I didn’t realize that assignment after assignment I was leaving behind people who — when they were asked about me — were saying good things. They said they would have me on their team, and later, they would work for me again. Early on, I was too young and too naive to realize how significant that is. It’s one thing to give someone a good recommendation. It’s another to have a critical role to fill and say, “Get Mel, she can do it.”
Just today, I learned that a member of my team is leaving to pursue new opportunities. We talked about the whys (we had a recent reorganization and so we don’t have a long history), and I told him that I tend to support individual development, even when that means a person leaves my team. Some of that is ‘growing up’ in a professional culture where frequent rotations for employee development were considered more important than the deep knowledge that would benefit management ease. I learned that dealing with learning curves and smart but inexperienced people was not just normal, it was leadership’s job.
But I suppose that there is an equally significant amount that comes from the great role models that have shown me what it looks like to build a circle of support. People who have given me opportunities, trusted me to do right by them and caught me when I was on the edge of a cliff. I think of:
- Two senior women who gave me a chance to create a mentoring program. I was green, but so confident I could make a difference. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a mentee, much less a mentor. I want to tell them I understand now.
- The four men who treated me like a peer, even though I was their junior in years, position and experience. All of them have lifted me up over the years. One gave me a fresh start. I want to tell them talent gets my respect, regardless of title.
- A strong woman with a very different background who I struggled to read. I was convinced for a long time that she didn’t value my contributions. After I learned her style and gained confidence in her respect, she became a stalwart ally and sounding board. I want to tell her I don’t hesitate to ask for feedback now.
- The handful of former employees who were with me in the beginning and have stayed with me through the years since. They trusted me and they continue to invite me to their lives for support. I want to tell them they always have a place in my circle.
Of course that list isn’t even close to complete. I learned from some of the best and my circle of support is not one circle, but a series of interconnected rings. Those friends from eighth grade are still there, and they are joined by the people I’ve added at each school, job and organization along the way. This summer, I added the HR leader who recruited me to my current job and just recently sought out her next great opportunity. I hated to see her go from my day-to-day work life, but she is still there, still available for support.
Because that’s a circle — one line that never starts and never stops, it just is.