We learn by practice and the best practice is to follow a model of the virtuous person.’ Aristotle
Who plays a key role in the continuous development of the future generation of professionals? The usual answer to this question focuses mainly on mentors and their importance in sharing knowledge and wisdom throughout someone’s career. What we often overlook is another group of people who can be equally instrumental in motivating and inspiring the next generation: role models.
Who are role models?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a role model can be defined as “a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy.” In other words, someone who serves as an example that people try to emulate. As it is often the case with this type of concepts, they are never clear cut in practice and a role model can be described in many different ways, often overlapping with other key individuals in someone’s career like mentors and champions.
Generally, what makes someone a role model is a combination of their achievements, work ethic and specific behaviours that help them stand out among their peers. They often represent the excellence in their field and may also share desirable traits like integrity, determination, high levels of self-awareness as well as strong principles and high standards that guide the way they act and treat others. In some cases, they also have an interesting development story and may have achieved a goal that we also have, which makes them a source of inspiration and an example to follow. They usually are open to share what they learnt from their personal experiences, and, even more importantly, they not only have a positive attitude to failure but they are also willing to show their imperfections and weaknesses as a way to help others.
This is particularly important because when we see someone as a role model, we risk to put them on a pedestal and, at the same time, set impossibly high expectations for ourselves. This clearly can have a negative influence on our confidence and performance, and ultimately on our career development. It is probably wise to keep in mind what American linguist, Noam Chomsky says: “…we shouldn’t set up people as “models”; but we should focus more on specific “actions, thoughts, principles” so that we have a more focused and realistic benchmark for ourselves and others.
How can they help you further your career?
As a result of today’s non-linear career paths and the rapidly-changing work environment, it is essential, especially for young professionals, to find a source of inspiration and motivation that supports them in becoming accountable and empowered to develop their careers and achieve even the most ambitious goals.
The advantages of having role models are manifold. At the most basic level, they provide models of behaviour which can help young professionals integrate the world of work successfully and understand the coded language and attitudes of a specific role and organisational context. Based on their personal experience, they may share attitudes and best practices that you can adopt in your day-to-day to navigate the challenges of a new career or a new role.
More generally, they can be key in helping you shape your career by showing you how you can achieve your objectives and by providing support and encouragement. It can be argued that the most valuable benefit of having role models is indeed that they can be much more than someone to look up to. By sharing their insights, they open the way for you and encourage you to experiment and explore opportunities for growth and progression that you might not consider otherwise.
How can you find your role models?
Like mentors, role models can be everywhere, within or outside your organisation. You may know them well or they can be someone you never met and ideally, you will have more than one throughout your career, often multiple at the same time. Although more established colleagues can make great role models because of their extensive experience, seniority is not the only factor to consider. Anyone from a talented colleague and your line manager to someone you meet at an event can turn into a source of inspiration.
What is truly key to find a role model are your observational skills. Look around you and observe how your peers behave in specific situations or with different people, how they find a solution for a problem you may have as well or how they were pioneers in certain roles or in their organisation. We often fall in the trap of thinking that role models have to be extraordinary people who achieved the impossible. In reality, the best ones are probably those who don’t even realise they are role models and unconsciously behave in a way that motivates and inspires others around them. Organisations should also play a bigger role in provide young professionals with the right opportunities to access role models that can guide through their development and help them understand how they can plan their progression within the organisation – and in certain cases outside it.
What happens when there are no role models around you?
That means that if you are observant - and lucky enough to be surrounded by inspiring professionals, your role models may be closer than you think. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many young professionals, especially in certain sectors and roles, may find it increasingly difficult to find someone they can relate to and in whose footsteps they want to follow. This is particularly true when it comes to new jobs that may have recently emerged as a result of technology and innovation or in connection with minority groups who might not have a significant representation in certain contexts and industries.
It may therefore be useful to look further away and be a little creative, perhaps even ‘create a role model’ that fits your requirements. Thanks to the various online platforms that we have at our disposal, it is now possible to follow what people do from afar and use virtual role models that we could not have direct access to in our everyday life. This widens the spectrum of experiences and backgrounds from which you can get inspired and learn. If we combine this with the idea that you can have different role models for different situations and requirements, you can focus on specific tasks or behaviours to observe and adopt (for example, how to manage a difficult conversation, negotiation techniques, or managing a team) and create your own role model by piecing together all these different aspects to create a repertoire of attitudes and practices for you to use.
Role models don’t necessarily have to be positive!
According to Lebanese-American essayist and mathematical statistician, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a lot of our focus is on positive role models; however, he thinks that “it is more effective to find antimodels – people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.” By antimodels we mean someone who may have similar goals or career development plans as you do but did not manage to achieve them. How can this be useful? It will help identify the challenges, blockers and unhelpful behaviours that may prevent you from continuing to grow and will provide you with valuable insights on thing to avoid.
Similarly, the concept of reverse role models is often being discussed as an excellent source of learning. These group of individuals may share a few of your career objectives and have already successfully reached them. However, they differ from positive role models because you do not share their values and you are not willing to follow their career path to achieve your goals.
Be a positive role model for yourself and others!
In conclusion, the most important element for young professionals is to have a source of inspiration and motivation throughout their career. This can be essential to identify key values, behaviours and ethical standards that can guide their decisions and help with their career progression. By finding the right role models, you can learn to adopt the traits of successful people and avoid those that might prevent you from achieving your objectives.
Moreover, identifying role models should be seen as the starting point to continue to learn and grow as a professional, and the ultimate goal should be to become one yourself. In theory, we can all inspire and motive others and very often we do it without even realising it. However, the more you progress in your career, the more you should become intentional about behaving like a role model. This brings multiple benefits to others because it helps them thrive as well and works as an internal motivator for you to continue to improve your performance and increase your knowledge.
Continuing in the exploration of soft skills and mindsets that can help the next generation of professionals to thrive in their chosen career, in my next article I will explore a concept that is inextricably interwoven with the idea of becoming a role model: legacy. This is something that is often discussed – if at all – later on in someone’s career. However, I would argue that it is never too early to start thinking about it as a source of motivation to achieve excellence and to encourage an individual’s personal growth and learning.
Valentina Lorenzon is a member of the CMCE Coordination group and editor of the CMCE newsletter.