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Recently I gave a talk to the Rocky Mountain SLA chapter on adaptive competence. It’s basically the ability to repurpose if not reinvent your LIS career (pretty much on demand) as market needs and opportunities require. Your adaptive competence is built on a core understanding that regardless of your current paycheck, we’re all self-employed – it’s up to us to take charge of our options and outcomes.

One of my recommendations for building adaptive competence, also known as career resiliency, was to find your tribe. Although marketing guru Seth Godin popularized the phrase in his Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (Portfolio, 2008), Godin’s focus was on leading movements. With apologies to Godin, I’m going to redefine and repurpose it here (clear tip-off to my content-developer roots!) to describe a tribe as that group of people who make up your career inner circle.

Think of your tribe as the select individuals who have your back, who will tell you the truth but first take you out for a glass of wine and commiserate or congratulate, depending on the circumstances. It might be fellow LIS professionals, those five friends who’ve known you since you all had braces, a close group of fellow students with whom you went through grad school – or any variation thereof.

The goal is to create an emotional “safe haven” for yourself (and your fellow tribe members) to help you navigate the ups and downs of career disruptions – and you can’t beat a supportive group of people who know you, get you, and have your best interests at heart. From an adaptive competency standpoint, your ability to bounce back from career setbacks and turn them instead into opportunities will be much greater when you have a trusted tribe to cheer you on.

Who Should Be in Your Tribe?
The answer to this question probably varies with your specific personality and goals, but the characteristic I would look for are:

Trust.  First and foremost, look for people with whom you have a solid trust relationship. You know they’ll never criticize your weaknesses in a way that’s hurtful, they’ll never use the information you’ve shared to harm or humiliate you, and they’ll support you emotionally through your career ups and downs. At the same time, you need to know that you’ll be there for them in the exact same way, from a place of generosity and sharing. Being part of a tribe is a reciprocal relationship built on trust, caring, and an open heart among all the participants.

Respect.  Second, look for people whose judgment you respect. A large part of what these groups do is brainstorming – knocking around ideas, solutions, business plans, career options, “what if” scenarios, etc. You want these brainstorming sessions to challenge you, drive your curiosity and creative thinking, push your strategizing to a broader mindset than you could get to on your own. So consider people who enjoy the give and take of a thoughtful discussion, who are solutions-oriented, and who are comfortable with exploring multiple viewpoints (their own and others’).

Mix and match.  Third, consider what you’re trying to achieve and what mix of individuals might best work together to share similar goals. For example, you might want to have only fellow LIS students or practitioners in your tribe, on the basis that you’re all operating in a shared or at least similar environment. This will make it easier for you to understand each others’ issues and challenges, and possibly to help connect each other to key individuals who can provide career opportunities or solutions.

On the other hand, you may want to include a diverse range of expertise and experience among the individuals in your tribe, again depending on your goals. Perhaps you have a friend who’s a marketing consultant, or one who’s in HR with a local corporation. Both of these individuals could possibly offer valuable insights into how to reach your goals, provided that you, too, could help them achieve theirs in return.

Because career brainstorming sessions can elicit a lot of soul-searching and personal reflection, the first and most important consideration of these three, however, is trust. You must know that it’s okay to open up, be honest, be afraid, talk about failure, and reveal any other vulnerabilities with your tribe; otherwise, it’s just another conversation.

How Many?
You may want to have three people in your tribe, or four or five. My personal experience has been that three is a great number, but it also depends on how many individuals you feel meet the criteria for whom you’d like to include in your tribe. If five works, go for it!

If you get much bigger than five, however, you may find two things happening: 1) there’s not enough time in your brainstorming sessions to cover everyone’s issues and 2) personality conflicts may start to surface, simply through the law of averages.

Also, keep in mind that you may want to be part of more than one tribe. Sometimes two small, more narrowly focused groups is a better option that one larger, more diffuse group.

Your Tribe vs Your Friends
If you have a good fit and mix, the people in your tribe are also likely to be – or become – your friends (hopefully among many others). The distinguishing characteristic, however, is that the focus of your tribe and your work together is to specifically support each others’ career goals as well as help steady each other through the inevitable ups and downs that every career delivers. Being “the tribe” in no way precludes also hanging out at baseball games or karaoke night or the local Rocky Horror Picture Show bash together – it just means that when you’re in tribe mode (usually a brainstorming session), your focus is on furthering your careers.

Your Tribe and Adaptive Competence
It’s a lot easier to weather career chaos if you’re not doing it alone.

Psychologists tell us that social support is one of the keys to mental health and happiness; so it is as well for career health and happiness. When you have a group of trusted individuals who have your back, it makes it easier to take risks, to talk about and overcome your fears, to identify opportunities that the group noticed while you were too preoccupied to see them, or to share the insights you’ve gained for the benefit of others you care about.

Equally important, however, is the fact that the members of your tribe, because you are operating in such an open and emotionally safe environment, may be able to point out to you strengths you never knew you had. They may see the special in personal characteristics you always dismissed as commonplace. In the midst of career chaos, your tribe may help you up your adaptive-competence game by reminding you of how well you’ve played it before. And if you haven’t? Well, they’re there to help you start practicing.