Maybe you’re familiar with the joke about the man who’s looking under a lamppost for a key that he lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is?

It’s an example of the human tendency to search for things where it’s easy to look even if we might not find what we’re looking for.

But just as the man in the joke will need to expand his search area to find his keys, the same is true when you’re searching for a role model for your career but aren’t finding any in your immediate vicinity.

When you’re a trailblazer, the search for a role model is even more critical

People commonly cite the lack of role models as one of the reasons why there continues to be so few women and people of color in the corporate executive suite. And indeed, if you never see someone who looks and sounds like you in a senior level role, it’s easy to conclude that maybe this future is not for you even if that’s not the case (more on that later).

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Even if you’re a trailblazer, whether due to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural background, disability or style, it’s possible to find role models to inspire your continued progress and success.

Here are three ways to find role models when there’s no one like you in the senior ranks of your organization

  1. Anti-role models
  2. Multiple role models
  3. Imagined role models

Let’s start with anti-models

Often, seeing what not to do or be like is equally useful to having a positive role model

When I was a junior associate on the trading floor, I had a great female boss. She genuinely cared about the team and always had time for us. Despite all her positive qualities, it was the area in which she was an “anti-role model” that helped me the most.

I’ll never forget the time she got into a screaming match with the head trader, John. All of us stopped to watch. But while she felt she had stood her ground by acting exactly like John, to the rest of us she sounded ineffective and unprofessional. This taught me the importance of being authentic. And not to assume that what works for someone else will also work for me!

Later in my career, my anti-model was a boss who ruled by fear. At our daily team meetings, he liked to single out people who were struggling. On the trading floor, he humiliated people publicly and I vowed never to be like him.

Which leads us to the second strategy.

Another strategy is to have multiple role models

That means choosing a different role model for specific situations you may find yourself in. Like handling conflict, being a team leader, or presenting at a meeting. Taken together, these situation-specific role models can act as a combined or composite role model.

You can either start by noticing behaviors that you admire in others and adopting those, or identify situations you need a role model for and look for who does that well.

For example, our department head was my role model for how to enter a room.  He would stride onto the trading floor, greeting people as he went along, smiling and exuding positivity. He made everyone feel good. It’s as though he changed the energy in the room just by being there. I didn’t even know I needed a role model for entering a room until I saw his impact. After adopting it, I know it made a difference.

My mother is my role model for how to treat people. She knew everyone’s name at her workplace and spoke in the same way to the janitor as the head of the organization. And my father is my role model for getting respect without needing to raise your voice.

So think about the areas you need role models for, and tap into the best of each role model for that situation.

Which brings us to the third strategy.

Your role models don’t need to be people you know

In fact, they don’t even need to be real. One of my favorite role models for maintaining composure under pressure is the character Diane in the US television show The Good Wife. As head of a highly political law firm, Diane encounters serious challenges in every episode and somehow retains her poise and professionalism. I channel her whenever I need that kind of backbone and self-assured confidence.

Think about who inspires you to be your best

Who helps you feel confident and courageous? For you, it could be looking to historical figures. Like Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, who used an imaginary Abraham Lincoln as an early mastermind member to help him in his thinking and personal development.

And for me, Joan of Arc holds a special place in my list of role models for acting with courage despite feeling fear. These imagined role models also could be people you’ve heard on stage. These are all possibilities for you to channel as role models.

Even if you can’t find a specific person in history or in your life, it could be recognizing the long line of strong people you’re descended from. Some might be actual ancestors (like my grandparents and great grandparents) while others may be kindred spirits, like the generations of entrepreneurs and trailblazers that have come before us.

While we may not know their names, we know they existed because otherwise, no change would ever have happened.

But what if you still feel it’s impossible to progress without role models just like you?

While it’s natural to feel this way, allowing the lack of role models to stop you from trying becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, remember that the purpose of a role model isn’t to prove it can be done. If that were the case, there would never be “firsts” in any field.

Instead, look at role models for what they are: a way to gain insights and possibilities for how you want to approach your career and work and life. Like leafing through a catalog to get ideas for the kind of furniture you want in your home or looking at fashion magazines to get a sense for color combinations and styles. You’re not trying to be a carbon copy of what you see.

Which leads to the common mistake to avoid if you want to find effective role models for your career.

Beware of being too specific in your criteria

If I had required a role model who was a senior, female, Chinese American, investment banker in my organization, I would never have gotten where I did. So resist the urge to insist on someone who’s exactly like you who’s three steps ahead of you. That’s too narrow a population to be useful.

Instead, give yourself the gift of a broader choice of potential role models. And adapt what you see to suit who you are and who you want to be.

You can find all the role models you need using these three strategies

So when you feel stuck, just remember to:

  • Make use of “anti-role models” and adopt the opposite behavior to what you see as being ineffective
  • Identify multiple role models to suit the specific situations you’re likely to face
  • Channel imagined role models, whether they’re historical figures or others you don’t personally know.

And use these role models to give you the courage to continue blazing your own trail.

So, which of these strategies would most help you to find the role models you need in your career and life?

Leave a comment and let me know.