Ask any professional across the arc of their career what they value most, and a top answer invariably will be “candid advice I can trust.”
Savvy professionals don’t leave that to fate. Instead, they actively seek out and cultivate such counsel as they progress in their chosen professions. Distinct from the valuable guidance of a single mentor, a sustained “kitchen cabinet” is an essential ingredient in every professional’s recipe for success.
Though the term was coined in the 1830s to describe an unofficial advisory group employed by U.S. President Andrew Jackson, turning to family and long-time friends for unbiased advice has long been a political and business staple. It’s an apt term because the kitchen, for most of us, is where people gather to tell stories, share ideas and feelings, and cheer one another on.
At its core, such an ever-expanding group of advisers is equal parts boosters and truth-tellers. Unencumbered by professional obligation (as a subordinate or supervisor would be), the members of such a group—when chosen smartly—have the experience and stature to share the hard truths that often need to be articulated and the wisdom and will to help you chart a successful path forward. (Both of us relied heavily on our most trusted cabinet members as we considered whether to accept our current positions.)
There are several tangible steps professionals should employ to assemble a coterie of advisers, including:
It’s never too soon to start building a robust supportive framework, and young professionals should begin this effort as early as their first internship. (When she moved to New York after college, Marian’s nascent cabinet fed her endless ideas she was able to turn into freelance pieces to fund daily trips to the salad bar—the best meal she could afford at the time. And Suzanne connected with one early cabinet member during a White House internship her first year of college; this person remains a valued adviser decades later.) Today, the flexibility and isolation of remote work present an added challenge. The trick is to establish good habits early with a mix of technological (e.g., LinkedIn) and personal engagement. Building relationships is cumulative. Learn from each so you can solidify ties over time.
Recognize how your kitchen cabinet can help you—and what they’re not there to do. Yes, members of this group may someday help you land a job, secure an appointment with a civic organization, or navigate the insanity of ultracompetitive preschools. That said, their primary value is to serve as a sounding board on whom you can depend for advice, discretion, and absolute confidentiality.
Strong relationships take time to build and require sustained face time (or, at minimum, Zoom or voice 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.” The old aphorism has never been truer: “Trust is earned, not given away.”
Your grandmother was right: Be friendly and courteous, and you will be rewarded. Members of your kitchen cabinet are more than random business associates—and they should be treated accordingly. In practical terms, that means including them on your holiday card list and sending a handwritten note on occasions that are important to them (not you), such as a congratulatory note recognizing a recent accomplishment of theirs (or their company) or a card celebrating a personal milestone.
Don’t neglect the relationship or, worse, allow it to feel one-sided. While there isn’t a rigid touch-base timeline, the less you exercise your ties, the more atrophied they will become. If they don’t occur naturally, create opportunities to reach out to the individual members of your advisory council. Share an article or book recommendation you know would be of interest or relevance. Offer an update on your personal or professional life. Introduce them to people they might enjoy knowing.
By engaging with you, your cabinet members are sharing two precious resources: their time and the culmination of their experiences explicitly distilled for your unique situation. Return the favor. On those occasions where you’re engaging with them, really listen. Process the information you receive and drill down on all the points where additional detail or clarification would help. Finally, close the loop. Let the person know how you proceeded and why. Most people won’t be offended if you don’t take their advice (provided your reasoning is sound), but seeming to ignore them will be a slight that can leave a scar or compel them to “resign” the position.
Navigating the complex professional landscape of 2022 isn’t easy. All the more reason professionals at every stage of their careers should be actively building and bolstering a network of trusted advisers who can help them determine and stay on the right path. Making a long-term commitment to the growth and care of this network of advisors will pay dividends for decades.
Suzanne Rich Folsom is Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Philip Morris International. Marian Salzman is Senior Vice President, Global Communications, Philip Morris International. They are both committed to accelerating PMI’s transformation to a smoke-free future and to empowering future generations to succeed, professionally and personally.