Building a “Personal Board of Directors” Can Transform Your Career—Here’s How to Do It was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
When Suzy Nicoletti, a successful account manager, was passed over for a promotion, it didn’t make sense to her. “It didn’t fit with the stories I was telling myself,” she says.
Nicoletti sought input from a former colleague, someone more senior, outside her immediate circle. He identified career gaps she hadn’t seen. “He felt that I had amazing personal wins, and great client stories to tell. But I didn’t have as many group wins. To move into a leadership role, I needed to be thinking more about the team and less for myself,” says Nicoletti, a friend and former colleague of mine. Armed with that insight, she began focusing more on group successes. She soon landed a leadership role and is now the Managing Director of Twitter, Australia/New Zealand.
For Nicoletti, that one conversation clued her into a lesson I often stress when mentoring younger workers: You need insight from people with differing perspectives to help guide your career, from finding jobs to navigating work-life balance to landing important promotions. I think of it as assembling a “personal board of directors,” an important effort to make whether you’re just starting out or well into your employment journey.
A personal board of directors is like an unofficial group of guides or a team of unpaid career coaches. Your board is a handful of people you can turn to with questions or concerns. They’re there to help, like your mother (if you’re someone who still calls your folks for advice, as I do), but they bring a range of insights beyond what a parent or any one person can know. Just as organizations benefit from the knowledge and experiences of a variety of advisors, so do individuals navigating how to get in and stay in a rewarding career.
As a veteran of the corporate world who has run global teams for Visa, Boston Consulting Group, Google, Twitter, and Cloudflare, I’ve benefited recently from the support of my own personal board of directors, and wish I’d heard of the idea earlier. I also “serve” on the boards of others, from recent college grads who are friends of my younger son to first-time mothers in the middle of their careers.
Here are answers to some common questions I get about assembling your own personal board of directors:
Not exactly! Mentors are valuable, but not always easy to find. The board of directors approach is different. It allows you to make a much smaller ask and is therefore less daunting, especially when you’re just starting out in your career. It also can be less scary for the people whose advice you seek. You’re just requesting occasional input about a specific area of expertise, not an intense one-on-one relationship. Your board members don’t even have to know they’re on your board; that’s just how you’re seeing them. A board member may well become a mentor over time—and I think mentorships tend to work better when they evolve naturally.
Even if you do already have a mentor, you still want a board of directors because there’s no way that a single other person can know everything about where you want to go and how to get there. No one person is exactly like you or faces your precise situation. This way, your mentor can be part of your board rather than your sole advisor.
Your board members are your support team, there to help with whatever your career throws your way. What you ask depends on what you need and their skills, their level of experience, their availability, and your relationship. You might ask them to give you guidance on a specific issue you’re facing, to share their own strategies for success, and/or to make introductions, when appropriate.
Board members can help you navigate and succeed in your job searches. They might, for example, help you expand the range of jobs you consider, by highlighting synergies between your strengths and positions or fields not on your radar. They might make connections and help set up informational interviews. They might comment on your resume (though don’t expect them to rewrite it for you). Or they might advise you on how to negotiate an offer.
A board member might also identify areas for growth, as in Nicoletti’s situation, and provide needed perspective. Board members can help you refine goals and achieve them, strategize about ways to gain varied experiences within the same company, decide when and how to switch companies, learn to manage people, move into social purpose work, figure out how to go part-time, handle being discriminated against, or manage office politics. They can also model work-life balance and be a sounding board and source of support.
Companies seek board members with specific skills, knowledge, and experience they need—maybe someone with IT capabilities, another from retail, and a third skilled at building culture. You should also assemble a mix of people who can address different aspects of your career.
Some can be job-specific: If you think you might want to work in healthcare, talk to people in different roles within hospitals and clinics. If you dream of working in film, find someone in LA who does that. If you’re trying to figure out how to make the jump from a marketing generalist to a more senior marketing specialist role, call on someone who did the same five years ago. If you’re not sure what you want to do, look for people with similar skills, interests, or personality styles and ask about their work.
People in different industries can be really helpful when it comes to things like figuring out how to negotiate a raise, promotion, or exit, or how to move across functional roles, such as from sales to product management. A diverse mix of board members leads to better advice and better outcomes.
Emily Rubin, a recent Emory University graduate (and friend of my son’s), credits her current (first) job at Hive partly to the advice and connections from her board. For her, having people to talk to who are different ages and at different levels really helped. “You’re not comfortable asking certain questions of some people, so you need people close to your age who are relatable and make you feel comfortable,” she says. “But you also need older people with more experience who can provide other kinds of guidance.”
Start by looking around for people you admire and respect. This could mean friends of your parents, a parent of a friend, a friend of a friend, an alum from your school, a buddy from your ultimate frisbee team, a former coworker, a former professor or supervisor you had a great relationship with, or even someone you’ve heard speak who seems reasonably accessible (probably not Tony Robbins, but maybe someone like me).
Make sure you also think about what kind of advice you need right now. When I decided I wanted to become a non-executive director on corporate boards, I reached out to women I knew who were already serving in this capacity.
Nicoletti says her board of directors evolved naturally after her “aha!” moment consulting with a former colleague about the missed promotion. “I started talking regularly to that person, and then to another person. I saw that it gave me a richer understanding.” Since then, she’s added others, including a retired banker and a former boss.
You might have board members already and not realize it. “I’ve had a few people guide me since college,” Rubin says, “a few professors with whom I made good connections, a career counselor, a teacher I really liked.”
A warm lead is always better than a cold one. The warmest lead is someone you already know. You can reach out with an email updating them on how you’re doing and what you’re up to and ask if they’d be open to meeting for coffee or scheduling a phone call to talk through something that’s on your mind.
The next circle beyond people you know consists of connections of people you know. Ask friends or former professors to introduce you to potential board members you’ve identified or to recommend people you should talk to. Look at the LinkedIn connections of people you know to find possible board members, and ask them to introduce you.
If you have your eye on someone with no clear personal connection, look for some shared experience, however tenuous. I recently had someone reach out through LinkedIn who highlighted the fact that we were alumni of the same company. We didn’t even work there at the same time, but she wrote an emotional plea for help finding her way to a company that would be more open to diversity. To me, that was a request worth answering and I was happy to make the time to talk to her.
You matter. Plus, people like to help, and most are flattered to be asked. Some people want to help others as a way to pay it forward, especially if they feel fortunate with regard to the opportunities they’ve had. Others who feel they got screwed may want to shield the next generation from what happened to them.
You’ll get some rejections and sometimes you won’t hear back at all, which is fine. You don’t need a yes from every single person you ask. But as someone who has been guiding those entering and navigating the job market for years, I know that I get a huge amount of fulfillment from helping other people figure out what they want and how to find it. I didn’t create a personal board of directors when I was coming up in my career, and I only later realized how much it would have helped. This is partly why I’m so passionate about encouraging others to do it now.
Plus, you are also a valuable connection for your board members, even if you don’t realize it when you’re just starting out. The young woman who reached out to me on LinkedIn mentioned during our conversation that she knew a man who happened to be someone I’d always wanted to meet. Later, I asked her to introduce me, which she did. See? Sometimes your request benefits your board members in very concrete ways.
If you don’t run into your board members naturally (because they’re in-laws or colleagues you see at events), try to reach out to them every so often. Email or call or invite them to coffee to check in with them. Ask about some specific interest or project of theirs and share something about your own progress. You want to get the balance right between building your relationship—so you’re not emailing only when you need help urgently—and not bothering them when you have nothing to say. The exact frequency will depend on your relationship and current situation, but you might think about getting in touch about four times a year.
In my case, I really like my board members and enjoy their company. While I’m still too much in awe of some of them for our encounters to be casual, I do reach out periodically to meet up, chat, and find out what amazing things they’ve been doing. You want to choose board members you’re actually interested in; expressing that interest helps maintain and develop the relationship, and can prevent it from feeling strictly transactional.
“For me, it comes in waves,” Rubin says. “I’m in a lot of contact when I’m actively applying for jobs or making decisions and need support. Other times, like now, I finally have a job and don’t really require help.” Still, landing the job provided Rubin with a good reason to reach out; she let all her board members know she was moving to another city for her new position. She’ll continue to keep in touch because she sees a strong board as a good foundation for future success. “I think I will need a lot of guidance and advice in the future,” she says. “I definitely couldn’t have done a lot of the things I’ve done without their help.”
Never! People do roll on and off, as in a real board. New questions, challenges, predicaments, and decisions might lead you to new board members. And while you don’t have to formally terminate anyone (in fact, please don’t!), you’ll find, over time, that some people’s experience grows less relevant and your need for their support fades. Still, unlike corporate boards that have to be independent and therefore must rotate people off after a number of years, you may keep some people around forever. You want a team behind you throughout your entire career, even if the exact composition changes.
Whatever stage of your career you’re in, think about what you need and who could help, and make building your board part of your plan. And make sure to pay it forward by joining someone else’s board when they ask.