Every company has a board of directors. You should have a personal board of directors to give you guidance and insight as you navigate the challenging path to the next chapter of your career.
Managing your career is more complex than ever. In our volatile and unpredictable economy, your job is nowhere near as secure as it once was. Even if you are meeting or exceeding your performance expectations, forces beyond your control (or your manager’s) can up-end your position. If you’ve been hyper-focused on your role and haven’t been paying attention to your network on the outside, you’re not prepared to re-enter the job market. Your job and career prospects will likely suffer. If you’re over 50 and you lose your job, it will likely take you longer – perhaps twice as long – to find a new position. Enter your personal board of directors.
The cliche is true: your network is your net worth. And having a personal board of directors is essentially the steering committee for your network and your networking strategy.
Corporate loyalty to employees is a thing of the past. You are essentially on your own, untethered from any semblance of job security. In the old days, if your division got scrapped in a re-org, but you were a solid performer, they would find a way to keep you and transfer you to a new role. Don’t expect that largesse today.
You’re essentially a company of one. And as a company of one, you need to think more defensively and more strategically. It’s time to assemble that board of directors, that steering committee, to help you navigate these uncertain career waters.
Career Transition is a Project, Not an Event
Changing jobs today is a big production. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to dust off your resume, submit it along with a nice cover letter to a handful of open positions and receive interview appointments and a job offer in short order.
One recent client told me that he was interviewed 14 times for a single mid-level position. When the offer finally came, it was for half the salary the client had made in their previous position. The recruiter apologized: he had screwed up and failed to share the prior compensation information with the new company. Waste of time. Colossal fail. Just another day in the job marketplace.
Securing your new position is going to take time and attention to detail. Assume that no one has your back. Realize that you are going to have to drive every interaction and ride every follow-up. Understand that you are going to have to be proactive and persistent.
Your personal board of directors is a key resource you can develop to support your job search – and your career development more generally. Imagine how reassuring it will feel to have trusted advisors you can turn to. Imagine not feeling so alone in this process. Imagine the relief you’ll feel when someone catches a typo in a cover letter or rehearses with you for an important interview.
Where Do You Find Your Personal Board of Directors
Your personal board of directors already exists. The members are already known to you. Your task is to review your close personal and business contacts and engage with them in perhaps a new way. Based on this process, you will begin to understand who could be the candidates for this group of trusted advisors.
When I work with clients on this question, my first assignment for them is to organize a few in-depth, constructive feedback conversations with a handful of close friends, business colleagues, or family members. These should be people they have known for a long time and who have seen them in many different contexts.
I always suggest that at least one former manager or supervisor be among this group.
These meetings can be your own personal “360” review – except that instead of conducting this review for your employer’s benefit, it’s for yours.
Your Feedback Conversations
These meetings should be carefully and meticulously planned. You want to have a conversation on a deeper level than you have probably had previously with these people. So you want to set up a time and a place where you will both be able to focus, not get interrupted or distracted, and really talk candidly.
You want to hear their unvarnished but constructive feedback about your strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures, opportunities for improvement and growth, and possible future directions.
A range of different issues can come up in these conversations. The goal is to ask the most burning questions and confront the deepest fears you have about your options and directions at this time. Maybe you’re thinking about quitting your job and starting your own business. Maybe you’re trying to strategize how to get the promotion you’ve been promised but that hasn’t been delivered. Maybe you’re between jobs and having a hard time landing.
Recruiting Your Personal Board of Directors
You’ll want to take and keep notes from your feedback meetings. You’ll want to hear constructive if challenging advice. The people who provide the most insightful feedback, and who demonstrate an interest in your success and in your future (even if they’re a little tough on you) are likely candidates for your board.
Your personal board of directors is your team, and ideally, it should reflect your personal values, professional goals, and your overall worldview. That said, you don’t want your board composed of people who won’t challenge you. You want to choose people who will hold you to the highest standard you want to set for yourself.
You want some degree of diversity of background, personality, experience, and POV so you get the benefit of competing ideas that will push you in new directions. If there’s some healthy friction and lively debate among your board, that’s OK. A little discomfort is a good thing!
Trust your instincts. Just because someone in your life has the external credentials that impress you, or has chalked up a string of business successes, doesn’t mean that they should be on your board. Despite their success, they may not have the same values as you or understand you well enough to give you good advice.
On the other hand, you may meet someone new, someone you never expected to be a candidate for your board, but it’s clear that they have the insight and experience you need. If their background and reputation check out, and you think they have the potential to help you (and if they’re willing to participate), why not take the risk and add them?
By the way, you don’t have to make your board an official body. After all, it’s your personal board of directors. You can start with one person or two people. If and when a third or a fourth comes along, start working with them.
Approaching and Working With Your Board Members
How you recruit and manage your personal board of directors is a highly individual and, well, personal question. If you don’t want to make a big deal out of it, you don’t even have to tell anyone that there is a “board of directors.” It can just be an informal set of people you know whom you can turn to for their advice, some support, and brainstorming. However you and your board members choose to meet, you should prepare an agenda for each meeting, and send a follow-up message with a recap of what was discussed, and what action items were agreed to.
Each of your board members will probably have their own preferences regarding how and how long they want to meet, what they’re willing to do, and what they expect from you.. Some of them may be willing to work with you very closely on a range of issues. Others may draw a line on how and when you can approach them. Some may be willing to meet as part of a group (see below). Others may prefer to work with you informally 1-on-1.
There is no right or wrong way to do this. Make it an organic process that takes shape and evolves over time depending on what’s going on in your career – and in theirs. Feel free to make changes. If you’re feeling stuck, and your board isn’t helping, it may be time to bring someone else onto the team.
As new people come into your life, and onto your board, others may drop off. This is normal.
Regular and effective communication with your board members is essential. Make sure that you calibrate expectations with them so that they know what your current needs and activities are. This way, they’ll be able to respond in a helpful way.
Recruiting Dos and Don’ts
Be Clear & Specific
Explain what you are looking for from each prospective board member. Know and articulate exactly why you are approaching them, and why you believe they can make a difference. It’s not enough to say something like: “Wow, you’re just a great person and I would love to be able to call you to ask you for advice.”
Instead, you want to say something specific and as detailed as possible so that they really understand exactly what you want. Here’s a very focused example (perhaps even too focused, but you’ll get the idea…):
“You’re an expert and have great experience in this one specific area. That area is at the center of my business plan (or the role I’m looking to work in). Would you be willing to work with me in hammering out a plan around these x number of specific questions? I’m thinking about something like an hour a week on the phone for a month. Would you be open?”
Be Prepared For Rejection
It’s OK if they say “no.” They may not have the bandwidth, or they may not feel that they can make a meaningful contribution. If they turn you down, follow up by asking them if they have anyone to introduce you to who might be a potential candidate.
Be persistent, but don’t be annoying. Give people time to make up their minds about your request, and if they don’t get back to you after a couple of weekly follow-ups, you probably have your “no” answer…
On the other hand, if they say “not now,” but leave the future open, ask when you might check back with them. They may actually be interested but want to make sure that you’re serious, and they’re actually testing your resolve. Take this opening seriously, and jot down their suggested follow-up date on your calendar. And, of course, follow up when the time is right.
Consider Real Board Meetings
If you feel that it’s important as a one-off, or on an ongoing basis, invite board members to collaborate as a team together with you. Some of this will depend on how you are working with your board, and whether your board members already know (or know of) one another. Take this step if you really need their collective expertise and/or debate to solve a specific problem.
Respect Their Time
People want to be useful and know that their participation can make a difference. But they don’t want to just hang out with you, even if they’re friendly or you’re friends outside of work. Be mindful of their generosity and set up your engagement with them – including individual and group meetings – so that they can make the most of it. Adhering to these principles will ensure that you build lasting and trusting relationships with your board members.
Benefits of Your Personal Board of Directors
Your trusted personal board of directors will include peers and mentors who know you well.
- They will understand where you are coming from in your job transition and career growth.
- They are ideally positioned to help you evolve beyond, say, the loss of your previous job.
- They can help talk you through obstacles you’re encountering.
- They can bring their outside perspective to bear and discern new opportunities that lie ahead.
As much as you are motivated to start something new, or make a dynamic pivot to a new role with a new company or in your own venture, you are going to have some dark nights. Your personal board of directors can be the bridge that connects the old world you’ve left and the new world you’re going to. Not every member of your board will be able to lend an ear when you’re feeling down, but if you can enlist someone to support you on that level, you will definitely be grateful for their help.
Your Board Over Time
Each of your board members should have a different “superpower.” Since it’s a small group, each person should stand out for a different value that they offer. Check out this article on the different personality types and functional responsibilities you might want to consider for your board.
Your needs can change over time, so don’t feel like you have to stick with the same people indefinitely. This is true of corporate boards as well. Calibrate your board to your current needs. At the beginning of your process, as you make your transition into your next phase, you’ll probably be interested in board members who can make connections to employers, investors, or service providers to start a new business. As you establish yourself, your needs will evolve. You’ll look for ways to better market yourself or your products, or gain access to new clients or business opportunities.
A Long Term Commitment
Your personal board of directors can be one of the most important elements of your ongoing success.
But make no mistake about it: it is a serious commitment. It is not a short-term deal that you just use to get your job or launch your business and then walk away from or let slide.
If you are looking at your second-act career as a decades-long proposition, the value of your personal board of directors will certainly evolve over time. But its very presence and the value of deep, enduring collaborations with trusted peers and mentors is unparalleled.
The Litmus Test
See the link below for access to a neat set of questions I came up with to determine if someone is the right fit for your personal board of directors.
Let me know if this list is helpful, and if you can think of any additional questions that might be appropriate.
I’ve reached out to a number of people who were in a position to help me and they refused. All were working (or had worked) in areas I was interested in pursuing, yet they all said — despite their obvious expertise — “I don’t know how I can help you.” What do you do in when that happens? I did not ask if they knew anyone else who could help because they didn’t seem at all interested in helping in the first place.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Mildred –
A few things come to mind. The first is just that these were the wrong people to ask, for whatever reason. You’ll have to keep looking!
Maybe they didn’t “get” you or have a clear idea of what you wanted to do with them, or where you were going. Often, the best way to start this is with someone with whom you’ve had a productive and good working relationship in the past. Then it becomes an easier “ask.”
It’s also important to have a well-defined presence and profile that a prospective board member can refer to. You have to be legit in order for them to feel like they can commit. So if your LinkedIn profile is not completely filled in, if the About section is not personal and compelling, and if the Experience section is incomplete or has vague or conflicting info, they may pass.
You have to make it easy for them if they don’t know you.
And even if they know you, they have to have a clear sense of what you want.
This is why I model a good and a bad way to approach someone in the article. It’s best to be specific and set their expectations about what exactly they can help with or solve for you.
There’s always the possibility that something in your pitch is turning them off. I would get with a close friend and review the exact steps you’re taking in approaching these prospective board members and see if they detect anything that might be amiss, be perceived as rude, or just inappropriate.
Don’t give up! As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work!”