Build your personal board of directors

26 February, 2024

Look beyond a mentor to a diverse group of advisors.

During the course of my career, I have been fortunate to rely on several advisors to bounce ideas, get feedback and enable my development. At critical junctures such as considering a job switch, exploring new business opportunities, evaluating different strategic choices, dealing with a thorny issue at work or coping with a crisis, different types of guides have provided huge support and perspective.

In today’s fast-paced and ever evolving environment, one mentor or coach — no matter how experienced and well-intentioned — may not be able to provide all the support you need for a fulfilling enduring career.

This is where a personal board of directors comes in.

A personal board of directors is a group of people who support your professional journey. They are your trusted advisors, whom you can consult and take guidance from on a regular basis. Like any board, the members of this group need to be carefully chosen based on their potential contributions and availability. As a paper in the MIT Sloan Management Review notes:

 Just as corporations configure networks to deal with the variety of problems and opportunities faced by knowledge workers, individuals need to configure their networks based on their needs and the resource commitments involved in building such relationships.

So, this week, my message focuses on creating a personal board of directors. What benefits does such a group offer? And how you can go about establishing your own?

At its best, a personal board of directors helps you navigate your career and manage personal growth. These are the people who help you hold on to your core values and priorities through challenging times. When you find yourself at a crossroads, they nudge you towards clarity. When you’re reeling from a setback, they offer either a morale boost or a reality check — or both! Their advice is vital in unlocking creative thinking at pivotal moments, such as a big change in role or taking a stand on something close to your heart.

Ideally, a personal board of directors is composed of 3-6 people. Unlike mentorship, which involves an intense one-to-one equation, a personal board entails occasional and specific guidance. (Do keep in mind that these advisors are not meant to replace a mentor.)

Special relevance for founders

Creating a company from scratch is a difficult and often-overwhelming task. During this period of insane pressures, many founders find it difficult to open themselves and be vulnerable with their statutory boards or their investors. A personal board of directors can be particularly helpful to discuss the challenges of scaling up, deal with setbacks, gain a broader perspective and have authentic discussions, without judgement.

Jesse Orshan, the co-founder and CEO of WayScript, built a personal board early in his entrepreneurship journey. In his Medium article, he notes that this was one of the most impactful things he did to improve as a CEO. In fact, he valued his advisors so much that he went on to offer them equity!

Orhan used 4 criteria for his personal board:

  1. Do they cover a weakness I have?
  2. Do they have relevant subject matter experience?
  3. Are they able to commit enough time? (Usually between 4–10 hours / month)
  4. Do we work well together?

Creating your personal board

If you are ready to build your personal board, get started with these six steps:

1. Define the areas.

Be clear about what guidance do you need and what kind of advisors can help you. What is important to you? What challenges are you facing? In what areas do you need support?

Orhan mentions including four advisors in his personal board:

  • CEO Coach — An advisor with immense company building and start-up experience. She helps me think through macro to micro challenges that come with scaling a start-up.
  • Fundraising Advisor — An advisor with deep knowledge of fundraising to help us assess terms, offers, running a fundraising process, etc. For this person, we generally speak once or twice a quarter.
  • Sales Advisor — An advisor who has experience building a sales organization (SaaS inside sales). I meet with this person bi-weekly.
  • Product Marketing Advisor — An advisor who helps us think through product and positioning based on customer feedback and market trends. I meet with this person monthly.

2. Aim for diversity.

The right group of advisors should be able to support you through different stages of your career, including job changes, industry shifts and second/third acts. So, don’t just select everyone from your current profession or field. Look for a mix of people with varied opinions, backgrounds, and areas of expertise.

It can also be helpful to have advisors across age-groups. There may be some things you feel more comfortable discussing with people your own age, while older people bring years of real-world experience to the table. Certain individuals could also help cover your weaknesses. As Orshan explains:

When starting WayScript…I quickly recognized that marketing was one of my weaknesses but was fundamentally crucial for my role. Therefore, I need strong marketing representation on my personal board of directors.

Also consider the following suggestion from bestselling business author Jim Collins:

Every board member should pass this litmus test: “If I were in a totally different profession or business…would I still have this person on my board?”

3. Look beyond closeness.

It isn’t necessary for you to have pre-existing close relationships with the people you choose as advisors. In fact, making intimacy a primary criterion will severely limit your choices. As Collins notes:

You need know only enough about potential board members to feel confident that they meet the standards of thoughtfulness, insight, and experience you desire on your board.

Your advisors should inspire your respect and embody the values you hold dear. Choose people who have a strong character and strong views but are not judgmental or biased.

When seeking board members, look at the following: your school and college alumni groups, friends of friends, people you have met at social or business events, former co-workers, former professors, fellow members of associations/hobby groups/community platforms, and so on.

4. Reach out.

It is up to you whether you want to formally ask people to be on your personal board or not.

Formal requests can be made in person or via email. Introduce the concept and mention how much you respect and admire the person. Explain that you hope to consult them a few times a year for advice on career matters. Remember, not everyone will say yes — and that’s ok. Some simply don’t have the time; others may already be serving as advisors to several people. Take the no’s in your stride and move on to asking the next person.

If you prefer not to make things official, that’s perfectly fine as well. You can still view certain people as “board members” and solicit their advice. Simply reach out via email: mention that you would truly value their guidance about XYZ and ask if they would be open to scheduling a call/meeting over coffee.

If they respond positively and you have a fruitful discussion, ask them at the end if they would be okay with occasional check-ins like these. Build the relationship over time by keeping in touch (not just contacting them when you need help).

5. Send regular updates.

Keep your personal board apprised on how things are going. I suggest sending out an annual or six-monthly email to each of your advisors. This communication should recount your progress, clarify your current thinking, and note any steps you have taken based on their recent recommendations (if relevant). Besides being a great way to stay connected with your board members, this best practice also encourages you to regularly review your career.

6. Pay it back.

You can “pay back” your personal board members by volunteering your time and effort in creative ways. Invite them for events they would probably find interesting but wouldn’t usually go to. Gift them your favourite new book. (Founders, you can consider offering some equity to those special advisors who you need to engage more frequently, say a day or more a month).

That said, one of the best ways to repay the generosity of your board members is to pay it forward. The kind of people who give you their time and advice willingly are usually thrilled when you do the same for others. As you grow in your career, make an effort to play the same role for up-and-comers. Carve out space in your busy schedule to support their growth.

Creating a personal board of directors can have a transformative effect on your career, both in the short and long run. The guidance provided by a diverse, thoughtfully selected group of people can unlock professional growth in surprising ways while simultaneously helping you stay grounded in your values. A big thank you to my personal board who have helped me immensely in my professional journey.

What might your life look like with the right personal board? Are you ready to find out?


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