In 1999 I decided to go a more individual route and became an independent. I enjoyed the freedom and responsibility of making sure I was regularly billable and keeping my clients happy. However, after about a year of being on my own, I missed the candid and objective feedback loop I had as part of a larger organization. Sure, my clients were paying their invoices, but that was not enough to guide my personal development. I needed more.
The first thing I did was engage with a professional coach, Carrie. I worked with her for about a year, and it was a very fruitful experience. During that time, Carrie encouraged me to deliberately seek out more trusted advisors that could provide guidance in areas outside of her capabilities. Taking her sage advice, I started developing a core group of people that eventually became my personal board of directors.
Most people are familiar with a board of directors for a company, and many of you may serve on boards. For an organization, the key purpose of a board of directors is to ensure the organization’s prosperity by collectively directing the company’s affairs, while meeting the appropriate interests of its shareholders and stakeholders. Basically, a board exists to optimize the health and growth of the organization. But what if you are the organization? That’s where the personal part comes in.
A personal board of directors serves the same purpose and can behave in the same way as an organizational board of directors. A personal board of directors is a group of people with diverse skills and perspectives that you select to positively contribute to your growth, development, and well-being. They are peers and influencers you respect and consider extremely important in terms of your circle of influence. They can have a strong positive influence on your life because they typically know you well, understand your personal interests, and most importantly, have your interests at heart.
Just to clarify, a personal board is different from a coach or a mentor. Mentors usually serve as guideposts inside your organization and talented coaches encourage you to go the extra mile or try the things that are tougher to tackle. Coaches and mentors may be members of your personal board of directors, but the larger personal board is intended to cast a wider and more diverse net.
Why Have a Personal Board of Directors?
There are lots of reasons to have a personal board of directors, but the simplest reason is that none of us knows what we don’t know or can see ourselves from a perspective other than our own. We all have our own filters, biases, experiences, history, and blind spots that limit how we perceive ourselves and the world we live in. It is part of our human condition. Even the most introspective and self-reflective person can’t look in the mirror and see a perfect reflection. While it is possible to get this feedback through other means, here are a few reasons why I chose to create my personal board.
Make It Official
I needed some level of formality that established mutual expectations for me and the people on my board. In my busy day-to-day life I may not take the time to seek out helpful feedback. Knowing I have a group of people I already have permission to tap into at any time provides a forum that easily facilitates reaching out for objective guidance and help.
Get the Occasional Whack Upside the Head
Diversity of perspective may be the greatest value I derive from my personal board. Sometimes I need a break from my industry or regular coworkers to get an outside perspective. This can help bring new energy to my ideas by challenging them. Even better, a fresh look from a different vantage point can be just the whack upside the head I need to rearrange, recharge, and reset my thinking. It’s easy to continue doing what I have always done. Members of my board will often help change some of that for me.
No One Is as Good as Everyone
One of the best parts of a personal board of directors is that as a group we can solve problems better than any one of the individual members and certainly better than I can myself. Each board member’s uniqueness makes a contribution to the larger whole. As someone who likes to entertain multiple perspectives, even if the final decision rests with me, I enjoy this collective collaboration.
Step Outside Your Immediate Circle of Influence
Friends and family can be wonderfully supportive and encouraging, but often times they have the same blind spots I have. A personal board is a great way for me to have a supportive but honest group of people to bounce ideas off of or get advice and constructive criticism from. Absent my board, I would tend to rely on those I interact with on a daily basis, who may just provide me more of my own perspective instead of the challenge I need.
Saying it out loud to someone else is enough for me to make it real. Commitments can be hard to keep and, left silent, easy to ignore. With a personal board of directors, I can set goals and share my commitments or invite my board members to help me stick to them. I don’t expect them to manage me or my commitments; these people are all working on their own growth. But the mere fact that I have publicly stated a commitment to someone whom I know will ask me about it in the future gives it more weight. This public declaration helps me hold myself accountable.
Thoughts About Establishing Your Personal Board
The primary guideline I use for selecting members for my personal board of directors is, Will I feel comfortable engaging with this person as a positive sounding board, and could their contribution make a difference in my life? If I choose wisely, then any time I face a major decision I can look confidently and eagerly to my board for advice.
So, here are some things to consider if you are setting up your personal board of directors:
- Avoid a mutual admiration society. It is comforting to be around people who agree with you and share your perspective, but that’s not your personal board of directors. Make sure they are truly interested in your development. By definition, a member of your board has your best interests at heart. “Yes-men” or casual observers may boost your ego, but that is not the purpose of your board. Spouses and family members may qualify, but candor and objectivity and receptivity have to be there from both sides — yours and theirs.
- Create a diverse board. Keep your board diverse by including some people who see the world differently than you do, some who are younger and older than you, and some who are in your field as well as different fields. Establishing a diverse group of people with different backgrounds will provide you with unique perspectives. This is where your personal board of directors can multiply the value of a single coach or mentor.
- Think holistically. Include people who will be able to provide guidance and feedback from a personal or psychological perspective as well as a professional or career perspective. This may mean including a professional coach or a designated mentor on your personal board. While guidance doesn’t come neatly packaged as distinctly personal or professional, it is good to have people you see as primarily providing each perspective.
- Consider a virtual board member. Not everyone has to be someone who knows you personally. They can be a historical figure, a relative who is no longer around, or someone you admire but have never met. Whenever you’re faced with a tough decision, just imagine what this virtual board member would say about your situation and what advice they might offer or how they might act. (Mine is Woody Allen, as unconventional a thinker as I can imagine. He blows up my mental box.)
- Decide on the best structure for you. You may decide to have regular, formal meetings with each of your board members or keep it more informal and situational. The first takes more time and commitment from you and them. The second takes more discipline to execute and relies on strong, established relationships. Either can work, but be explicit with your board members about the structure.
- Stay alert for potential new board members. Once you decide to cultivate the best possible board that you can for yourself, always be on the lookout for new board members. Look for “mentor capitalists.” I have nominating criteria for accepting someone new, and periodically evaluate my current board and who might be a good addition or substitution based on new goals I have made.
My Personal Board of Directors
My personal board of directors is a reasonably informal six-member group. Not all of them know they are on my board because they have been acting in this capacity for so long it is just part of our relationship. They see their “board role” no differently than our friendship. Others are more formal or temporary. Some have been part of my board since the beginning, while others have changed over time as my goals have shifted.
So, as we start the new year, this may be a good time to consider establishing your own personal board of directors. You can start small with one or two people you already see in this light and grow it from there. Compared to other resolutions you may have already given up on, this could be a lot easier, a lot more fun, and perhaps the resolution that helps you keep all future resolutions.