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Career advice from the pros

Seventy of New York’s top women in media joined 160 aspiring young women for a “Mentors Walk” in Central Park this morning. It was drizzly and great. NBC Universal (GE) and Step Up Women’s Network, a non-profit group all about advancing women and girls, hosted. The Mentor Walk’s creator, former Oxygen Media CEO Gerry Laybourne, was there along with J. Crew President Tracy Gardner, Bank of America Merrill Lynch media analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive, Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel….an eclectic mix!

Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBCU’s Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, was mentor-in-chief. She, along with the rest of us mentors, accompanied the young women on a “walk & talk” through Central Park, followed by breakfast at Tavern on the Green. I walked with a young woman named Maria Jordan, a young finance manager who spent four years at IBM before moving to General Electric’s NBCU. Jessica Shambora, my Postcards colleague, walked with Zalaznick, who is something of a media-industry phenom, having built Bravo into a highly profitable cable brand. Jessica and I both learned a lot and thought we’d share with you by letting you in on our post-Mentors Walk email chat:

Jessica: What did you talk about with your mentees?

Pattie: My favorite advice that I give to young people, women and men alike: Focus on the job at hand. Don’t plan your career. And think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder. Who can know, especially in today’s unpredictable world, what the next big thing will be? You need to have peripheral vision and swing to opportunities as they come along. Agree?

Jessica: I do. I think Lauren Z. would too. She told her mentees, “In your career, you can have high expectations for good experience, but it’s hard to have expectations for an exact path.” From her perspective, today was about helping the mentees understand the things they need to be thinking about to get to the next level in their career, as opposed to thinking your mentor or anyone else is going to just give you a job. Although we both know that can happen at these events!

Pattie: Indeed! So I gotta share our story. I did my first Mentors Walk in 2006. I was assigned to a mentee named Selena Soo, this charismatic young woman who got a velvet grip on me and never let me go. Since then, I’ve spoken and moderated panels at events that she’s organized. One event was 15 months ago at NYU: a career panel with Citigroup CMO Lisa Caputo and a few other rising-star women. Before the panel began, you walked up to me and said, “My name is Jessica Shambora. I’ve read your stuff for years and I’ve seen you on panels. I even blogged about you.” I loved your manner and your confidence.

Jessica: Yeah, I just thought it would be cool to get to know you. I felt a strong connection to the “Most Powerful Women” idea—the stuff that you talked and wrote about often. I never imagined what would happen next. I was just pursuing my passions and interests, and it led to one of those “right place, right time” situations…

Pattie: That’s a lesson. You never know what will come out of a chance encounter. As a Fortune Editor at Large who started here 25 years ago as a reporter (like you are now!), I’ve been struck so often that just getting out there brings opportunity. First, you have to be curious. Curiosity is an undervalued trait. Second, you need to think broadly. Back to that peripheral vision that I mentioned. It’s so easy to bury yourself in your work—there’s so much to do!—but if you’re young and really smart, you think broadly: How can I contribute beyond my assignment? You look for ideas outside your four walls. That is, if you have four walls!

Jessica: Yes, and these are all things you can do no matter what state the economy is in. In fact, you should do them even more during tough times. We’ve heard this from a few different business leaders that we’ve written about on Postcards: Don’t hunker and hide. Get out there, be curious, look around. Think big.

One of the last things Lauren said this morning was about strking the right balance between celebrating and questioning success. When times are tough, she said, make sure to celebrate successes. In good times, deconstruct your successes so your business will have discipline and rigor to survive tough times. It’s a bit counterintuitive. But it’s good advice so you don’t get complacent or take any success for granted.

Pattie: I would never!