Barnaby Mollett is currently the Careers Team Leader for UCL East with UCL Careers (University College London). He’s spent over a decade working in careers and employability, previously for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Imperial College London, during which he managed several local, national, and international projects supporting students in career planning and gaining insights into the world of work, including mentoring and internship programs. He holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Careers Education, Information and Guidance in Higher Education from the University of Warwick, and also currently co-chairs a national-level committee on career mentoring as part of the Associate of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), supporting colleagues across universities in best practice provision of mentoring initiatives. Asides from career education, he is passionate about breakfast at weekends and indie rock music.
The “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” statement gets thrown around frequently. When I work providing career guidance to students in higher education – or clients in any context – I take care to explain networks and networking exist in many different forms, but the idea of building career capital is important in almost every professional future an individual may find themselves in. Whether that’s remembering a person who’d reached out with a polite LinkedIn connection request, developing contacts to who you can rely on for certain expertise, or reuniting with a former colleague at a new company in 10 years’ time, “who you know” is undoubtedly important.
But it is only a very top-level observation of a career. It suggests that merely knowing someone pretty much sorts you out career-wise which, in my experience, often isn’t usually the full story. “Who you know” implies the simple idea that, say, knowing a data analyst in financial services might give you a foot in the door of a job in that industry. But in terms of the career decision-making of younger professionals, students included, who are not sure about a particular direction, the “who you know” doesn’t provide the answer to overcome this natural inertia. Substitute it for “how you know”, and you end up with a much more reflexive – and helpful – statement. How you know something might be because of the ‘who’ you know at that moment, but more likely it stems from a whole range of influences and resources – and differences in them.
Having worked for many a year guiding people with their career decision-making, particularly in a higher education setting, it has always interested me to think about how different the influences on an individual’s planned professional journeys can be. Facilitating one-to-one careers coaching interactions on thousands of occasions, it’s amazing to see that despite the apparent similarities which are often present (common areas of job interest, similar values on financial security, wanting to make a difference), the mix of influences on the individuals I’m having that discussion with is unique.
Whether I’m speaking with somebody with 20 years of experience as a leader in the industry, or a first-year undergraduate taking first steps into the world of work, the idea of role models in a career provides a means of reflection that anybody, in higher education or otherwise, could use to reflect on their career journey. It’s perhaps surprising that despite how intuitive much of this is, anybody reading this article might surprise themselves by evaluating their career paths and plans by asking a few simple questions.
Role models are incredibly important in terms of how many of the students and less-experienced clients I’ve worked with have formed career ideas. Theorist Mark Savickas notes the importance of role models in their careers. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to a client called Alex for this example. If Alex can form a mental association with someone in a job (say, a teacher they know), this may facilitate their move from a state of preoccupation (liking the idea of helping and working with children) to a stage of occupation (fulfilling this and becoming a teacher). Alex might say something like, “I’ve kind of always fancied being a teacher” or “I want to help children learn”, and often there is a role model possessing (or perceived as possessing) attributes that the client wants themselves to move towards possessing.
The idea of the role model may differ in different cultures. For example, parents may act as this means of influence where the family focus is a key career value. Role models also don’t need to be people that are encountered in day-to-day life, either. It’s really not uncommon in the world of media accessible at a few clicks or taps that those in the public eye can act as role models (or massively influence negatively) people’s career plans. Or these could also be quite likely to be fictional heroes. The anecdotal examples of Suits-influenced lawyers-to-be and Scrubs-influenced doctors-in-waiting bear fruit in reality and the million-viewed influencers of #CareerTok can also duly inspire. Admiration – and sometimes idolization – is a powerful driver, and often influences an individual to dig deeper into their career research and planning, make a choice of course of study, or even reinvent themselves professionally.
How influential a role model (or role models) might be on an individual has a range of factors. Hodkinson, another theorist, talks about ‘horizons for action’ wherein an individual’s career decision-making is bounded by what is perceived as visible from the position they stand in. So, for example, access to role models could be quite different both in terms of who is in an individual’s school or their community, or circumstances of upbringing such as access to the internet, books, and museums. All of which have all kinds of implications for who is thought of as a career role model all those years later when that individual is sitting in a one-to-one careers discussion with me at a university. All of these reinforce the importance of career influence as a key consideration by any career coach or educator working with students in higher education, given its nature as a diverse and international sector.
Hodkinson also notes the importance of ‘hot sources’ as a means of information discovery in career decisions. These hot sources are the reliance of an individual on somebody else they can trust for information, without a desire to seek a wider overview. This is often seen through sharing of career ideas amongst peers (such as early application pressure to what are perceived as prestigious internships), but also in joint admiration of career role models who are homogenous for a whole cohort of students, like a guest-speaker in a high-flying role from their alumni community. This can be incredibly helpful and positive, or indeed wildly misleading – and perhaps this a part where careers coaches and educators like myself to provide a sounding board and a sense of balance.
Maybe you’re now wondering about your own career role models. Ask yourself: who (or what) has acted as a role model to influence your career choices to date? If you can’t do that, think about how you first ended up in your first professional role, or even what you wanted to be growing up. Have those influences or role models been different at certain stages, or changed? And how might you have acted differently without them as a figure underlying your career decisions?
For the students and clients I work with, exploring the role models and influences behind career decisions (and indecisions) will always be a way to inform guidance. The next time you find yourself working with students or colleagues, or remember that old “who you know” adage, why not consider the “how you know” instead?