Networking and Mentoring: Is It Necessary?

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Published on November 16,  2018, at 6:42 p.m.
by Gillian Castro.

Students are often told that getting a foot in the door is the best, and sometimes the only, way to start a career. Networking is taught to be the key to success in the fields of media and public relations. Forming a beneficial mentor relationship is one of the most effective ways to create professional connections. The process of having and being a mentor is a constant cycle that typically starts during a student’s time in college.

At a school as large as The University of Alabama, there is no shortage of alumni willing to mentor students in a variety of fields. The professional mentors for today’s students presumably had someone who passed down professional wisdom to them before they began flipping the script and passing that wisdom on to their current mentees. Similarly, the current mentees will likely follow a similar path and take on the role of mentoring students in some way once they have settled into a career.

How connections can start a career
Graham Flanagan, senior video correspondent for Business Insider and 2005 graduate of The University of Alabama, credits the connections that the university gave him for starting him on the path to where he is today.

“After graduating I wound up getting a job as a freelance production assistant at CNN in New York, and that was based on a connection that randomly popped up with a guy who had gone to Alabama and went to high school in Tuscaloosa,” Flanagan said.

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Flanagan found his professional connection in Mark White, a 1991 UA graduate working at CNN at the time. Mutual friends introduced the two, and soon after meeting, White invited Flanagan to a CNN shoot in Tuscaloosa covering the series of church burnings in 2005. Flanagan worked with them on the shoot and then received an offer to work on the CNN morning show.

“I ended up realizing Graham might be a good fit for CNN after he asked a series of insightful questions about edit equipment and very specific questions that showed he knew a lot about putting taped pieces together,” White said.

Flanagan’s first job at CNN lasted four years. After two years of working on the 1.a.m. show, Flanagan moved to the 8 p.m. show. In 2010, Flanagan’s show was canceled and everyone working it was laid off, including Flanagan.

Mentors can help at any point in a career
After Flanagan was laid off by CNN, White was able to help him secure a new job at Bloomberg Television. Flanagan’s position at Bloomberg served as an important stepping stone in his career where he was able to grow in his profession and continue making connections that would help him further down his career path.

“It was there that I moved away from live production to making taped pieces, packages, documentaries and that sort of thing,” Flanagan said. “That is where I met a mentor named Justin Maiman, who was an executive producer there, and struck up a friendship with him. He taught me a lot and gave me a lot of opportunities and sent me on a bunch of awesome shoots around the world.”

Maiman eventually ended up at Business Insider running the video department. This move gave Flanagan the opportunity to continue his career at what is now his current job with Business Insider.

“It was all through networking from day one, I definitely utilized my connections from the university because that got my foot in the door and then that led to more relationships including the one that got me my opportunity here at Business Insider,” Flanagan said. “I would not be here if it weren’t for meeting new people, proving that I could create value for the company and proving they could trust me to get the job done. Networking has been the foundation of my career, and I would not be here and I would not be able to do any of the things I was able to do without having relationships with people and gaining their trust and proving that I could perform.”

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From having a mentor to being a mentor
The universal idea of creating connections to benefit your professional career goes beyond being able to find a job. It is common for public relations practitioners and media professionals to connect with others as a way to expand their abilities within their current career. Mark White said it is important to continue trying new things to expand your skill set and broaden your résumé.

“Having connections is always helpful, not just in terms of the job search itself but as a good sounding board for strategies. I have a couple of good friends with whom I’ve worked, and we all now work for separate media companies, even with competing interests, but we still call and email each other to get their take on job stuff and news stories,” White said. “Any connections with smart people or experienced people are typically a good thing. And you don’t have to agree on everything/anything — I have a friend who is credited with throwing the election to George W. Bush. I don’t love that about him, but he is extremely smart, worldly and fascinating to talk to.”

Becoming a mentor in your career can mean being a mentor to other professionals or being a mentor to students. Perhaps one of the most important reasons to have a mentor is to have someone to hold you accountable for the work you produce, and to make sure that it is held to the standard it needs to be for where you hope to work. Flanagan acts as a mentor in this way for all UA students he meets.

“When you come from a school in the South you sort of get scared when you think of going and working in a place like New York because of perceptions that schools in the South have,” said UA student Ellora Lalla. “Graham showed us how strong our alumni network is and that if you have the work ethic and skills to back it up, you can work anywhere.”

Networking and mentoring: Is it necessary?
According to both Flanagan and White, connections are becoming a necessity in the current state of job climates.

“Having someone that wants to see you succeed, that has your best interests at heart, is essential in this business,” Flanagan said. “It really helps to have strong relationships with people who have more experience than you in the business and can help you out, guide you, and prevent you from running up against a wall or doing something over and over again for too long when you shouldn’t be worrying about whatever that is that isn’t helping you progress.”

Growth and learning are important parts of having a mentor. In order to succeed in a profession, one must be able to adapt and grow with changes. According to White, change in this industry is constant. Five years ago, White left Fox to work for a social media company because he recognized that was where the industry was heading. White said you shouldn’t fight technological changes; you should embrace them and ask your friends and mentors what they think.

“The most important thing about a mentor is someone that can give you honest feedback, who can tell you that you might not be doing something right, or that you can be doing something better, and isn’t just trying to stroke your ego,” Flanagan said. “Because if they’re just doing that, then you aren’t going to grow. You will just be going in circles, so to have someone that can take the time to look at what you’re doing and give you both positive and negative feedback, as long as it is constructive, that is the key.”

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