Peechaya Burroughs for TIME
Career

The One Person More Important Than Your Mentor

Jan. 4, 2016

You need someone who's open to doubts and questions

I’ve written about the importance of mentors and about how a portfolio approach can be useful as we advance throughout our careers.

However, I’ve noticed that there’s often a critical player missing in many people’s overall career-navigation portfolios: The career platypus.

Let me explain. In a professional setting, do you, without concern about repercussions to your career, feel comfortable enough with at least one person to:

  • Ask (really) stupid, broad or basic questions when you think it’s assumed or expected you’re knowledgeable?
  • Express doubts about your current organization, role or responsibilities, trajectory, requirements for success, etc.?
  • Admit confusion or ambiguity about next steps (for example, interest in exploring options in very disparate functions or industries)?

In Silicon Valley and other tight-knit physical or virtual communities, relationships interweave and evolve, work and personal blend constantly, and the landscape is always intense. The freedom to ask those awkward questions with the comfort that they won’t come back to bite you can be a luxury. And the usual suspects don’t always cut it:

Mentors teach you, provide introductions, and often advocate for you. But for mentors, people need — or feel they need — to show their best, focused selves. If people are going to go to the mat for you, you need to reflect well on them.

Managers are similar to mentors, in that the best ones will guide you and advocate on your behalf. But you need to execute well, and can only express doubts or ambiguity to a point.

Career (or life) coaches are professionally trained to help you identify and reach your career goals, or to improve your leadership and management skills. But coaches often lack the functional or industry expertise you need for those critical analyses — and not everyone can afford coaches.

Friends can be terrific personal support. Some friends may have the professional expertise you’re seeking as well. But friends are inherently biased, which often undermines their credibility and/or advice. If they are work friends, awkward conflicts of interest can arise when the company’s requirements and yours diverge.

Online sites like blogs (ahem) and Quora can be fantastic resources, but are by their nature either not personalized or not anonymous, which can be unhelpful and even damaging.

Enter the career platypus. Like a rare egg-laying, duck-billed, web-footed mammal that shoots poison from its ankles (seriously, how amazing is that?!), a career platypus has the following unique combination of characteristics:

  • Trustworthy. A career platypus is discrete, holding your career confessions in confidence.
  • Insightful. A career platypus understands you and your motivations, personally and professionally. She has the relative life and career experience, savvy, and objectivity (see below) to see opportunities, possibilities, and consequences — and the various paths toward each — that you may not.
  • Objective. A career platypus doesn’t judge. He has no agenda, nor do you have one for him, other than seeking answers to the types of questions posed above with impunity.
  • Accurate. A career platypus can shoot poison from his ankles with lethal accuracy from a distance of 500 meters. (Ok, the last one is wishful thinking — but only if used for good….)

Finding Your Career Platypus

All kidding aside, a career platypus is your port in the proverbial storm, giving you a safe haven to be yourself when asking critical questions.

Sometimes people are lucky enough to find their platypus in a friend or partner, mentor, coach, or online. None of these categories are mutually exclusive. But other times, as said above, none of those people will fit the bill. If you can’t find a single person to fill the role, you can use a portfolio approach — but not by compromising on any of the characteristics of a career platypus. A portfolio approach in the career platypus context usually means that you can ask people different questions to piece together the answers you need.

If you identify a career platypus, here are some basic guidelines for approaching one and interacting with one “in the wild”:

  • Set expectations. Clearly signal to your career platypus to ensure alignment. For example, an introductory sentences like, “I’m in the early, information gathering stage,” or “I’m brainstorming and would appreciate your help in confidence,” are good ways to kick things off. And be prepared to abort the conversation if what you think is a platypus turns out to be another animal!
  • Expect nothing. Once you’ve set those expectations, don’t make a career platypus feel awkward or give her a reason to flee — now or in the future — by asking for more, like introductions. If they’re volunteered, however, of course feel free to accept them.
  • Return trust with trust. Discretion goes both ways. Sometimes to best answer your question, a career platypus will reveal his private, personal insights. Handle those with care. Protect them as you do your own.
  • Focus your questions. You don’t have to be focused — but your questions need to be. Organize your thoughts. Respect the clock. You’ll get a better, more actionable response to questions like, “Assuming I wanted to transition into X role, what would I need to demonstrate?” and “Would you please explain the latest in mobile advertising technology?” versus, “What do you think my life’s purpose should be?”
  • Never wrestle with a career platypus. Presumably you’re asking questions because you don’t know the answers to what you’re posing. Answers from a true career platypus are gifts freely given. Accept them and say thank you. While follow-up questions or exploring their rationales makes sense, arguing a point, or saying, “yes, but,” isn’t constructive. Discounting or devaluing contributions in their presence can make career platypus (yes, that is the proper plural) angry and unmotivated to help you in the future.

Be a Platypus

The best way to know how to interact with a career platypus is to be one yourself when the opportunity presents itself. Personally, I’ve forged some strong, long-standing relationships through conversations in which I’ve had this role. And to all those who have served as my career platypus over the years, I am truly and deeply grateful.

This article originally appeared on Karen’s blog