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The T&M Soft Skills Series – Building Professional Networks

By Esmee Vernooij

This past Thursday marked the start of the newest development in the T&M virtual experience. Spearheaded by Jinal Shah’s talk on building professional networks, the soft skills series is one that hopes to highlight the key professional skills that may not always be taught in the classroom. The series started as we eager aspiring professionals hopped onto Zoom.

Jinal started off his talk by asking us a simple but broad question: who do you go to? Whether it be for personal or professional advice, we all have people that we turn to when we need an outside perspective. He showed that there is never just one right answer. Sometimes, we need to turn to our family, other times our peers. We often also simply need to sit down and weigh factors for ourselves to decide on an issue. Taking the time to consider all the places and means through which I get advice was eye-opening and enriching as we began to delve into all of the ways a mentor could support us.

He then asked us to consider what we think of when we hear the word “mentor.” Using a word cloud, students responded with thoughts like “guidance,” “role model,” “advisor,” “inventive,” and “positivity.” Those last two stuck out to me. An inventive spirit is not commonly associated with a mentor role, and yet it is vital to making the most of a professional relationship. Through an inventive mindset, one can collaborate more creatively, and thus more meaningful change can be brought about in someone’s career. Positivity is also key to the success of a mentorship. Without a cheerleader to keep you level and to guide you through the ups and downs, it becomes exceedingly difficult to succeed.

Now that we were starting to understand what kinds of benefits a professional relationship could bring, Jinal gave us five key tips to succeeding in building them authentically. First, he told us that you have to make sure you go in with the right intent. Be aware that a relationship is never going to be one-sided and that if you want to have a long-lasting, authentic bond with a person, you have to be willing to put in the work to create it. Second, ask questions that build positive energy. You want to make sure both parties feel like they are benefiting in some way, so always ask questions about common interests or about the person you are talking to. Third, be mindful of the impression you make. If you really want the relationship to succeed, you want to make sure there is mutual respect and understanding of each other, and that is rooted in how you present yourself through your actions and words. The fourth tip was to listen with full intention. If you can make it known that you can pay attention, people will often come to you more and thus your relationships with those around you will grow to be stronger. This doesn’t mean just thinking about the question that you want to ask – always fully interact with those who you are talking to. Finally, Jinal told us that we have to be willing to be vulnerable. If you are willing to show your cards, the other person will more often than not reciprocate.

Jinal then asked us to consider what kind of support we were looking for, and whether that role would be better filled by a mentor or a sponsor. A mentor, in this case, can be seen more as a mirror. They reflect their experiences and allow you to see more clearly what your best course of action is in a given situation. They are generally less formal relationships that can evolve over time. On the other hand, a sponsor is seen more as a spotlight. They highlight your abilities and present opportunities that allow you to elevate your status and drive your career vision. Both are incredibly beneficial professional relationships and will certainly prove to be essential as one continues through life, but it is always important to consider what the expectations are and how to best foster those budding relationships.

The talk ended with a few tips and questions to consider moving forward. We were told that, prior to initiating a new relationship, we ought to consider a few things. Based on our ambitions, one needs to decide if they want a mentorship or a sponsorship and which benefits either brings. In the case of a mentorship, this usually means career advice, and in the case of a sponsorship, this usually means upward mobility. One also needs to reflect on their professional ecosystem and determine which role is more needed at a certain point in a career. They then need to close the gap between themselves and the people who are offering the potential help they are seeking by inserting themselves into the spaces where the people or skills you are looking for exist. Then consider what you bring to the table and make it known – remember that relationships are always a two-way street. Finally, Jinal told us to always remember to pay it forward. Nobody ever gets anywhere without a little help from others, and if we can contribute to the success of someone else, we ought to.

Esmee Vernooij

Esmee is currently in T&M Class XXVI, a rising junior in Mechanical Engineering, and is working towards improving her professional and academic development skills this summer.

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