Recall the old adage: It’s not WHAT you know, but WHO you know.

This could not be more true when it comes to your professional circles. In today’s world of work where career reinvention is the norm, the people in your personal/career community have a very important role to play. They can help you shift connections and industries, bolster your personal brand and provide much needed emotional support.

A former colleague of mine from the OB department at Boston University, Dr. Kathy Kram, just released a book called Strategic Relationships at Work, in which she and her colleague, Dr. Wendy Murphy from Babson College, highlight the most practical insights developed over more than three decades of research. I recently interviewed Kathy and wanted to share both her wisdom and mine on this topic.

(This will be a two-part article as the subject is vast. In this first part of the article, we talk about what strategic relationships are and how they are helpful. In part two, we’ll discuss how to find these people, how to develop mutually beneficial relationships and how these advisors can ease a career transition.)

“Every individual can benefit from creating a personal board of advisors (PBOA) that can help achieve personal and professional goals more effectively. It is crucial to know that it is up to you, the individual, to actively enlist others in your development. No one else can do this for you. After a careful assessment of your strengths and talents, areas that you want to enhance, your personal values and your vision for your future, you can identify people that you can approach to help you learn particular skills and/or take actions to position yourself for the best opportunity that comes along,”

-Dr. Kathy Kram.

BUSSIN: How do you describe a strategic relationship at work?

KRAM: Strategic relationships are relationships with a purpose. Meaning that they exist for the purpose of mutual learning, support and career development.

BUSSIN: I refer to these important career/personal connections as one’s Personal Board of Advisors or Directors (PBOA/PBOD). And you refer to them as “developers.” Are these one and the same? 

KRAM: Yes, they play the same role. In our book, we discuss the different types of developers or advisors that people can come across.

BUSSIN: How can a board advisor or a “developer” help me?

KRAM: Essentially, these individuals can offer two different types of support. They are either helping you with your career development and advancement or providing some type of personal support and role modeling. Or they can offer both.

For example, if you have been out of the workforce for a while to raise kids and are coming back in to a high level role, a conversation with a working mom who juggles career and kids can help you learn the tricks of the trade and provide the emotional support and confidence boost you may need during this transition.

strategic-relationshipsBUSSIN: In your book, you discuss the importance of strategic relationships for all individuals at any point in their career. What are some of the benefits of these strategic relationships?

KRAM: These relationships can help career professionals in the following ways:

  • Helps us get clarity around our career goals and what’s next
  • Identifies new career opportunities
  • Expose us to challenging assignments
  • Provides support and coaching as you consider your next steps in development
  • Exposes you to individuals in new fields to aid with a career transition

BUSSIN: As a personal branding strategist, I might even add that these relationships can help increase your brand visibility and credibility. Would you agree?

KRAM: Absolutely. For example, someone who wants to advance up the corporate ladder in his/her company may need to rely on advisors or developers that can provide stretch assignments (visibility) and speak on his/her behalf (credibility).

BUSSIN: I think back to when I started my career 30 years ago and it was so different. You really only had one person you relied on and they were usually senior to you in the organization and usually a male. How has this concept changed?

KRAM: Today, an individual will have multiple developers or advisors, from within the organizational and outside the organizational boundaries. Each one may provide some level of support-career or social/emotional or all of it. And they can be younger and have less industry experience than you have.

“We encourage everyone to think like an entrepreneurial protégé. This means not only learning with your personal board of advisors but also assessing where you are and where you want to go to renew relationships, initiate new relationships or reach out to people you may be able to help.


Building strategic relationships is a mutually beneficial process; both you and your advisors learn from one another. If you are reluctant to approach people for help in your career, remember that those who are willing to act as mentors, sponsors or coaches are rewarded as well. Beyond tangible benefits – increased salary and promotions – they are seen as leaders, skilled at developing others and build a loyal base of support.”

-Wendy Murphy