Building a Circle of Support: Letting others in, being vulnerable, and gaining self-awareness

Cue the “Meet the Parents” meme… We’ve all seen it, the awkward moment where Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro are in the dressing room and good ol’ future father-in-law is accusing Ben Stiller’s character of nefarious acts:

The thing I love about that scene is someone caring about another person enough to call them out on their actions. And the other person is clearly in the dark regarding what the other person is feeling and experiencing in the relationship. This is honest. This is candid. This is support. We all need a “Circle of Trust” in our lives.

Self-Awareness Isn’t Easy

I frequently meet with designers in our community. Quite often, I hear these statements or something similar:

  • “I’m not sure where I want to go next in my career.”
  • “I’m not sure what I need to work on.”
  • “I’m not sure I’m learning the right things.”
  • “How do I know if I’m doing a good job?”
  • “(Person’s name here) is making me feel (fill in the blank here). How do I approach this?”

Or further along in the career…

  • “I’m not being recognized for what I’m doing.”
  • “We need to grow in this direction, but I’m not sure how to get my company to understand it.”
  • “How do you know when it’s time for a change?”
  • “I’m thinking of doing conference talks, what do you think I could talk about?”

I also see people vying for each other’s jobs, competition for the next role, stretching ourselves to learn whatever the new hotness is at the moment. What I don’t hear a lot about is self-awareness.

The journey to being self-aware is hard. Damn hard. Also throw in vulnerability… and that may be outright uncomfortable. Admitting to ourselves and others that we 1) still have more to learn, 2) are perhaps not the right or best person to solve the problem, 3) need to speak up and ask for help, or 4) the big one, perhaps our own behaviors might be impeding our own successes… well, those are really hard things to see clearly and just even admit it to ourselves. Whether you’re fresh out of school, looking to take on a lead role, helping a company grow, or becoming a thought leader there is always more to learn about yourself and how others view you.

In our careers, we move through phases of focusing on ourselves, our teams, our company, and ultimately our industry. Sometimes folks will go as far as making an impact on humanity. As you evolve and transition through these phases, a Circle of Support can give insight into how others perceive you as well as what you believe about yourself.

The Circle of Support – A Definition

So what exactly is this Circle of Support? It’s a group of people you choose to be your mentors, guides, and the difficult truth tellers for your career. As you move through your career, your goals and objectives adjust. Along the way seeing ourselves clearly can become difficult. You can feel lost. This is why it’s crucial to have a group of people who can be your Robert De Niro’s – a Circle of Support.

This experience of a Circle was not something someone taught me. It was something that formed organically for me. I noticed how impactful it was in my career to have these people in my life, not just a peer group but an evolving network of various mentors with different backgrounds and experiences. So I came up with the name with that De Niro moment in mind, it really brought home the feelings that formed from having these people in my life. My professional family. Over the years I learned, iterated and adjusted the format/structure.

Here’s the framework I’ve landed on for the best possible Circle members and I thought I’d pay it forward so you can experiment with the concept.

  • 5 people who are at or near the same place in their career as you.
    • Understand each other’s goals.
    • Asynchronously discuss work and trends.
    • Attend meetups together (or maybe make your own meetup together!)
    • Take an online course together.
    • Volunteer/give back together.
    • Call each other out.
    • Hold each other accountable.
  • 3 people who are 5 years beyond you – for the next role you’re seeking.
    • Engage with these folks as much as you can.
    • Meet for lunches.
    • Discuss challenges.
    • Ask them to introduce you to their peers.
    • Ask lots of questions.
    • Listen to their answers.
    • In return support them and their goals – encourage them to take big steps and scary leaps.
  • 2 people who are 10 years beyond you – for your next, next role you’re seeking.
    • Meet quarterly for coffees.
    • Discuss trends.
    • Encourage them to tell stories.
    • Ask them to introduce you to their peers.
    • Support their big steps. Be a person for ideas and feedback. You’re now their target audience.
  • 1 person who is retired, not working in your domain, who has a ton of life experience and can call you on your crap.
    • This is the one that’s non-negotiable. This person has lived a lifetime of experiences. This person can see situations you’re gonna bring up before you bring them up. They’re experienced, open, and ready to help another person’s life journey.
    • Ask all the questions.
    • Listen to the stories (you’ll hear them more than once, smile like it’s the first time hearing them.)
    • Read the books they recommend, even if they don’t seem to relate to you.
    • Look for the hidden message in that book.
    • Respect the crap out of them.
    • Ask them to help you see what you don’t.
  • Mentor at least 1 person younger than you… give back.
    • The old adage… You’ll know your stuff when you can teach it. You’ll grow faster. Things will solidify and connect faster by teaching.
    • Help this person find a passion and chase it. Remember, it’s their passion and journey, not yours. Support them, help them find it.

The Circle – In Practice

No real rules exist, but I have learned that it’s best to have most of your Circle members be outside of your workplace. It’s nice to have outside perspective, it brings in diversity of thought and experience. Ultimately as you grow the Circle, implicit trust is established with your Circle members. But hard work goes into making that happen… Calling each other out, challenging each other to do better, and making connections happen for each other. The end result is unique to every person, but hopefully you’ve all just invested in making each other much stronger and more self-aware.

My own personal career and self-awareness journey has been a winding road and by no means am I close to saying I have it all figured out. My own Circle members have come and gone through the years, but have had profound impact on leading me to where I am today. Here are just a couple examples of impact that my Circle has had my life:

  • When I started at SEP I had another offer from a much larger company. I was sitting with a friend thinking out loud about both opportunities when he just stopped me dead in my tracks and said… “Noelle you’re a trailblazer. It’s what gives you energy and renewed passion. Why would you even consider taking a position where you wouldn’t have that side of your energy fulfilled.” Well, yes… True, let’s choose the harder path. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
  • About 5 years ago I was with someone in my Circle telling her I just couldn’t handle all the balls up in the air and not a one of them seemed to be making progress. She didn’t say well Noelle, let’s break those things down and find out what’s really going on. She looked straight at me and said, “You’re going to need to find a way to keep yourself motivated. It’s no one’s responsibility but yourself.” In that moment, I felt somewhat dismissed. In the long term, it was one of those experiences that I can point back to that changed my life. She was my Robert De Niro in that moment. I now pay that advice forward with my other Circle members.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without my Circle – members past and present. It has adjusted, changed, and molded itself to new contexts and opportunity over time and as I become more empowered, informed, and insightful, I pay that information forward. I’ve had to make tough calls and dissolve Circles and start a new ones, too. Ensuring you’re being intentional and self-aware though the journey is the important part.

I hope you’ll consider making your own Circle of Support. If you do, just be aware of how you’re growing, what you’re learning, and how you’re helping others. And don’t forget to thank people along the way and pay it forward.