Asking your boss for advice

I was watching Parks and Recreation this weekend, in which there was a scene in which Leslie asks Ron for advice about taking a new job. Ron, not given to flights of emotion, still gives Leslie really wonderful, grounded advice, that just so happens to coincide with his interests in keeping her at the Parks Department:

Leslie: Do you remember what you said to me five years ago when Eagleton offered me that job and I asked you for your advice?
Ron: Do whatever the hell you want. What do I care?
Leslie: Right, but then after, when I pressed you, what did you say?
Ron: I believe I said that I thought we worked well together, and that I might disagree with your philosophy but I respected you. And I said that you’ll get a lot of job offers in your life but you only have one hometown.
Leslie: Yes, that’s how I remember it.

I have asked bosses for advice about my career. I had one amazing boss, for a summer internship in graduate school, who took me out to lunch at the end of the summer so we could talk about where I wanted to go next and what I wanted to do with my career.

But usually, I am afraid to talk to my boss about next steps for my career. I am afraid I’ll get in trouble for thinking about moving on (or up), afraid I’ll get fired, afraid I’ll hurt someone’s feelings. This fear is both well-founded and completely not so. I wonder if more bosses want employees to discuss long-term plans with them. I know that in certain circumstances, it is entirely appropriate for a boss and an employee to discuss future plans, especially when the employee is on a contract. But in my experience, these conversations don’t happen, or don’t happen often enough, to really have an impact. Worse still, if they happen in times of crisis, they can feel like conversations in which the employee is being “managed out” of his job. (Do you guys know about managing out? It’s so manipulative and amazing and necessary. If you have ever seen it done, it’s a true art form.)

Are discussions like these part of an employee’s natural professional development? I think they could be. Just like professional networking, going to a conference, or taking a class could be beneficial, so too could advice from a colleague or boss who has been in a position where the employee wants to be. This is clearly “more possible” in work situations with clearly delineated hierarchical structures and paths for advancement, and less drama.

I suppose this is yet another post lamenting the lack of a true mentor in my career. I will always hope for a kind and caring “adult” to help me shape and guide my work-related goals. What I love about Ron’s advice to Leslie is that it is intrinsically good advice that has nothing to do with his interests, or the Department’s–it’s advice about what matters the most to Leslie: Pawnee. She cares about Pawnee more than she cares about a prestigious title somewhere else, and Ron gently reminds her of that.

Perhaps this is what great bosses and mentors do: they remind you of where you want to go, in the long run. Hopefully, working for them will also help you get to that place.

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