Imagine Harry Potter’s story without Dumbledore’s mentorship, Ron’s support, Hermione’s knowledge, or the rogue advice of Sirius. Not quite the same, is it? Although Mr. Potter is the star in his namesake books, the true creators of his hero’s journey are his diverse group of friends and advisors. Frankly, without his crew, Harry probably wouldn’t have survived the Chamber of Secrets. And the same can be said for most “heroes” in real life. Behind every successful person is a group of people—a personal board of directors— invested in their success.
If you can acquire such a group, the effects can be spellbinding—your professional network increases, you are given priceless industry knowledge, and you receive strategic advice from the top minds in your field. Employees who receive mentoring are promoted five times more often than those who don’t.
“Creating Your Own Personal Board of Directors,” was the topic of discussion at SXSW 2016, in which three successful women shared advice on how to create, manage, and elevate your own personal board. One point the panel made right away is that a personal board of advisors is different from, and more rewarding than, having one mentor. The benefits include:
More advice. Tapping into a diverse group of skill sets means a wider range of advice for you.
More time. Finding someone to talk to is easier when there are multiple people to contact.
More connections. A larger group increases the network of people who can help you succeed.
The guide to a successful personal board of directors
From picking the right people to ending the relationship gracefully, here are the six things you need to do when building your personal board of advisors.
1. Pick the advisors. We all have professional role models. Good advisor candidates are people who know more than you about something you need to know. Someone who successfully made the career move that you want to make, or who has cleared obstacles similar to your own. The ideal number of advisors is between three and five people—large enough for variety, small enough to maintain connections.
Aim for three personas: a senior, a peer, and a mentee. Why a mentee? As their advisor, you’ll better understand what makes a great mentee—and can apply that knowledge in your senior and peer relationships. Plus, young people are generally more aware of what’s up and coming. Learn from them, advise them, and hopefully, they’ll remember you when they build the next Google.
Pick a variety of personas and skills. Look back at the Harry Potter analogy. What if he was surrounded by a pack of Rons? Sure, he’d have loyalty in spades but not much else. Make sure your board of advisors covers all the skills you need to succeed. Think about your professional weak spots and look for people who excel in those areas.
Choose honest people who will hold you accountable. Julie Sandler, Principal at Madrona Venture Group, and the SXSW panel moderator put it best, "You don’t want people who tell you that you are right, you want them to tell you the truth. You want them to be tough on you." No need for nastiness or intimidation tactics, just 100% honesty—look for someone well-versed in the art of radical candor.
"You don’t want people who tell you that you are right, you want them to tell you the truth. You want them to be tough on you." - Julie Sandler
2. Approach the advisors. Admittedly this is intimidating. But so was your first job interview, right? The more advisor conversations you have, the more comfortable they’ll become. Jenny Hogan, CMO of Tagboard says, “I’ve had way more ‘No’s than I’ve had ‘Yes’s. Embrace the ‘No’s’ and keep trying.”
Get a warm start. When putting together a personal board of directors, it’s always better to have a warm introduction. Try to have a mutual connection introduce you. If that’s not possible, research where you two overlap in life, (LinkedIn is a handy tool), and use that common ground as the spark for an introduction.
Step into their shoes. Want to know how advisors like to be approached? Survey people you know. Chances are that a relative, coworker, or professional contact in your circle has served as a mentor or advisor. Use their insights to help shape your approach.
Drop the labels. If you aren’t sure of which term to use for your relationship, don’t use one at all. Most people are familiar with professional mentorship relationships. There’s no need to say, “Will you be on my personal board of advisors?” Focus more on your goals and your weak spots to help them realize how they can help you. Being honest will help them get personally invested in your big challenges.
3. Decide on a structure. Routine makes advisor-mentee relationships thrive. A schedule helps with accountability on both your parts.
Pick a meaningful meeting cycle. There’s no need (or time) for arbitrary meetings. Decide on a meeting rhythm that works for both of your lifestyles. That might mean speaking on the phone twice a year to go through lots of items, or meeting for coffee once a month.
Be present in their life during downtime. You know that friend who only calls when their life is capsizing? Don’t be that person. Establish a normal cadence of communication outside of your meeting cycle. Wish your advisor “Happy Birthday,” celebrate their successes, and check in when it makes sense. Otherwise, when you do reach out for help it can feel transactional.
4. Make each meeting a success. While it’s great to be friends, this relationship is centered on accomplishing your professional goals. Use each meeting as a time to level set, get advice, and inform your advisor of wins and failures.
Be prepared. Both of you are devoting precious time to these meetings. Show up to each meeting with a clear agenda of what you want to accomplish. Even better, send the agenda ahead of time to prep your advisor on what to expect. Taking this relationship seriously will show respect and give your needs more precedence in your advisor’s busy life.
Build up to big requests. When you first meet, be sure to establish a real relationship before getting into any solid requests. Start by asking for advice rather than something transactional—a job, recommendation, or connection.
Change it up. Although a consistent meeting schedule is important, meeting in the same Starbucks every time can get stale—for both of you. Clara Sieg, Partner at Revolution Ventures, says, “Doing things that are outside of the typical ‘Let’s grab coffee’ are good ways to foster personal relationships.” Suggest meeting at the new neighborhood tapas place or taking a walk in a park while you chat.
5. Keep the connection meaningful. Just like any personal or professional relationship, you need to invest time and effort if you want your connection to thrive. Hogan recommends checking in annually (your anniversary is a good date) to evaluate whether the relationship is working for both you and the advisor. Don’t be fearful of asking if the benefits are mutual.
Listen up. Most advisors will not ask for compensation (although you buying their coffee is good), but they will expect payment in the form of respect. “When our advice falls on deaf ears, it feels like we aren’t valued,” says Sieg, who frequently advises new companies. “Be thoughtful about why you are and are not taking advice. If the mentor feels like they are wasting their time, the dynamic shifts and the relationship stops feeling like a collaboration.”
Report back. When you do act on their advice, report back on how the event transpired. Make sure they know of any successes that they influenced and let them be part of your celebrations. This is a repayment of their investment to you.
Help where you can help. Look for opportunities to give back to your advisor. That can be a strategic introduction, a business idea, or a personal favor. Giving back helps keep the relationship balanced as a “give and take”, instead of a “take and take”.
Just like any personal or professional relationship, you need to invest time and effort if you want your connection to thrive.
6. End the relationship when it needs to end. This isn’t a “til death do us part” situation. You and your advisors should be comfortable understanding what’s working, what isn’t, and when it’s time to quit.
Be honest. The hardest conversations are the ones that need to happen. Ask your advisor how things are going and if they are still enjoying the relationship. Ask yourself if you are still learning.
Look for new opportunities. The relationship might end because you’ve learned everything you can from them. If that’s the case, ask them if they are able to introduce you to someone else who can continue to help you grow.
Stay personally connected. If you have to remove someone from your board, it doesn’t mean they should disappear completely. Honor your time together by keeping them in your personal network. Besides, you never know when you might be able to help them in the future.
We’re all trying to navigate this nuanced world of business and personal relationships, and come out on top. Give yourself a boost by setting up a personal board of directors—because, with enough support, you too can be the hero of your story.