By Marian Salzman, Senior Vice President, Global Communications*, and Suzanne Rich Folsom, Senior Vice President and General Counsel
Business professionals rarely scale the career ladder on their own. We all need a little boost to get to the next rung and avoid backsliding.
By actively building connections with people who support and inspire you—and then sustaining this “kitchen cabinet” of mentors—you can up the odds that your professional life will stay on an upward trajectory.
An age-old concept
Though the term kitchen cabinet wasn’t coined until the 1830s (used to describe an unofficial advisory group employed by U.S. President Andrew Jackson), consulting family and trusted friends for unbiased advice has been a staple of politics and business for far longer. It’s an apt term because the kitchen, in many homes, is where people gather to share stories, ideas, laughter, and worries; it’s the beating heart of the household.
Before accepting positions at PMI, both of us relied heavily on the counsel of our cabinet members.
Senior Vice President, Global Communications*
Suzanne Rich Folsom,
Senior Vice President and General Counsel
The ingredients of success
So, how exactly should you go about stocking an effective kitchen cabinet? Here are five tangible steps to take:
- Don’t wait. It’s never too early to start constructing a supportive framework. Early in her career, Marian relied on her fledgling cabinet for ideas she could turn into freelance pieces that would cover the cost of her daily trips to the salad bar. And to this day, Suzanne regularly solicits advice from a cabinet member she connected with during a college internship at the White House. In this era of remote work, establishing good engagement habits is even more critical. Reach out to people—in person when possible. And be patient. Fruitful relationships aren’t formed overnight. It’s a cumulative process.
- Understand what’s on offer. Your cabinet is meant to serve as a discreet sounding board on which you can depend for good advice and absolute confidentiality. Yes, one of these connections may someday help you land a dream job or open a door of another kind, but that’s not their primary function.
- Build trust. Strong relationships take time to build and require sustained face time. The ease of email and social media postings can be seductive, but they are no substitute for meaningful dialogue. When possible, pick up the phone or arrange to meet for coffee, a meal, or a walk. Prioritize the relationship rather than your “asks.” As the adage goes: “Trust is earned, not given away.”
- Nourish the relationship. Your cabinet members are more than random business associates—and they should be treated accordingly. Ask yourself: What’s in it for them? Goodwill gestures should travel in both directions. It can be as simple as sending a handwritten note to mark occasions that matter to them, such as a recent accomplishment, career milestone, or birthday. Share an interesting or relevant article or a book recommendation. Introduce them to people they might enjoy knowing.
- Respect their time and input. Members of your cabinet share two precious resources every time they talk with you: Their time and the wisdom gained from experience distilled and tailored to your unique situation. Return the favor. When engaging with them, listen intently, process the information, and ask for further detail as needed. And then close the loop by offering updates on how you proceed. Regardless of whether you heeded their advice, you want your advisers to feel appreciated and respected.
Careful cultivation pays dividends
Navigating complex professional networks has never been easy—and the task has only grown more challenging in today’s remote working and norm-altering landscape.
These navigational challenges are precisely why professionals, from novices to veterans, should actively foster a network of trusted advisers who can pave the way forward—and help them stay on course.
* On January 1, 2024, Marian Salzman was appointed Senior Vice President & Chief Corporate Citizenship Officer.