Meet Your Personal Board of Directors


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 a second-act career.

No, it’s not putting too fine a point on it. Take your second-act career seriously. Think of yourself as a company of one. You deserve to get all of the support and perspective you need. Don’t think about this next phase of your life as about just getting a job. You’re likely going to be let down and disappointed by the reception you get (or fail to get) from recruiters and employers. They will likely see you as old and past your freshness date. Your personal board of directors is the team you put together to back you up. It is a top resource you need to push back against the ageist economy that is telling you you’re done.

As a company of one, with your board’s help, it’s time to be more strategic and more wide-ranging in your thought process. Go beyond looking for the same kind of role or title you just had. Open yourself to ideas, concepts, industries, roles, and connections that you would not have considered previously. Use your board’s connections and experience to meet new people, have new conversations, and get re-inspired about your work.

Working with your board is the ultimate perpetual brainstorming session. Your board is a safe forum that you have set up to support yourself in this next career phase. And it is composed of (usually 3-5) people who know you well and have your back.

Second-Act Career Transition is Not a Solo Act

Changing jobs was never something that we thought of as a “project.”

If we got a job offer and made the move, that was hopefully an upward step in our career. It was one of a (again hopefully) series of smart moves up the ladder.

If we got laid off, we updated our resume, sent it out to every recruiter we knew, and applied to every job that was in the ballpark.

We never needed to approach this more intensively because we were in the career marketplace “target zone.” That is no longer the case.

For many people I meet with about coaching and training, one of the first things they tell me is that they’re seeking career coaching for the first time in their lives. The reason? This is the first time they’ve ever had this much trouble getting a new job.

So it makes sense that we would need more muscle, more support, and a wider net to make headway and get back on track.

Networking is obviously key to this process. Your network is an asset, but your network isn’t necessarily “on your side.” It is a resource you can develop and tap into. It is a way to find leads and get introductions. However, in order to make more nuanced, personal, and effective decisions, we need to talk to people who are willing to help us out on a deeper level.

Where We May Need Guidance

One of our blind spots at this age is that we’ve lost perspective on who we are and what we do well. We also may be resistant or in denial about our weaknesses and the areas where we can stand to improve as people and as professionals.

One of my first assignments to new clients and students 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 who have known you for a long time and seen you from many angles.

The goal is to confront your fears and receive unvarnished, honest feedback about how you can go forward from this point. Maybe you should think about starting a new business even if you’ve worked in corporate all your life. Perhaps you need to get over your hanging on to a big title or a big salary that you may not get again. It could be that you need to come to grips with a behavior issue or pattern that has dogged you for years (control, temper, insecurity, limiting beliefs, etc.).

Sadly, a majority of people in business have never worked with a mentor. And according to this survey, only 8% of senior-level workers (that’s us) have worked with mentors. If you have worked your entire career without the benefit of an independent and impartial mentor to guide you, establishing a personal board of directors may help you make up for lost time. It could make a significant difference in your performance going forward.

your personal board of directors

Recruiting Your Personal Board of Directors

The initial set of constructive feedback meetings can be the seed of your personal board of directors. If these meetings go well, and you find yourself developing rapport with one or more people through this process, you may have found your board.

Invariably, my clients and students find success and an unexpected sense of relief after they’ve conducted these meetings. Usually, the fears they had about talking so candidly about themselves are unfounded. Instead of hearing negative and depressing feedback, they most often hear constructive if challenging advice. They connect with their advisors on a new level of friendship and support. Not every meeting is successful. But the people who provide the most insightful feedback, and who demonstrate an interest in your success and in your future are likely candidates for your board.

Update Your Sense of Your Identity

One of the first issues that people encounter in refitting themselves for their second-act career is their professional identity. They are used to seeing themselves in the role they had in their last job and find it hard to shake that identity. This is especially true if that job was the top of their professional achievement, and carried with it a good amount of cachet, respect, and personal connections.

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 transition. They are ideally positioned to help you detach from your previous professional identity, and to help you talk through your acceptance of your new situation and the 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, you are going to have some dark nights. It is going to take some time and some re-evaluation to get comfortable with the loss of your previous position, the perks you enjoyed, and the colleagues you could turn to.

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.

Stop Blaming Yourself

Another factor people wrestle with if they’ve lost a job, or are trying to find another one, is a very subtle sense of shame around their career transition.

We don’t like being out of work. We judge ourselves terribly. We think there’s something wrong with us if we’re not getting up every morning and having to report to work (even or especially if it’s in our home office). Our puritan work ethic has perhaps subtly, but no less concretely reinforced this idea that if we’re not working and getting paid, there’s something amiss.

It might not be your fault that you’re in this situation. It may actually be your choice to move on to a new phase of your career. But somewhere inside you, there’s a voice that’s telling you that you did something wrong or you’re doing something wrong. You could have planned better. You were supposed to know what you didn’t know.

And you’d better get back in the saddle soon! If you don’t, it means that there must be something wrong with you!

Your personal board of directors is a stopgap against this kind of stinking thinking. If you’ve chosen wisely, your board members will know that you’re being too hard on yourself. They’ll make sure to keep you on track. Instead of focusing on what you’re not doing, they’ll help you reframe and refocus on what’s positive and on what’s actionable.

Vulnerability is an Asset

Well-run companies encourage openness and vulnerability within their leadership ranks. Personality cults, political infighting, blame games, and other ego-based behaviors don’t lead to successful outcomes. This is even more true with your personal board of directors. Ironically, the best way for them to serve you is if you present yourself at your most vulnerable.

Putting on a brave face and claiming to have everything under control is not the way to go. Don’t look to your board to rubber-stamp your ideas or sugar-coat their advice.

You want to be an acolyte. Go to them with a beginner’s mind. Act as if you know nothing. Listen more than you speak. Ask questions even if you think you know the answers.

Roles to Fill

Your personal board of directors is your team, and ideally it should reflect your personal values, professional goals, and your overall world view. That said, you don’t want your board composed of people who won’t challenge you. You want to recruit 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?

You don’t need to recruit your board all at once in some formal way. You never even 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.

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 second-act career, you’ll probably be interested in board members who can make connections to employers or 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.

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.

Or your work may benefit if you have more formal group meetings. Consider setting an agenda and a recurring schedule for these meetings. Ask for your board members’ input on current and longer-term decisions and opportunities you are dealing with.

Each of your board members will probably have their own preferences as well. 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. 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

Do be crystal clear about 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.

Don’t be vague or general about working with them or why you are approaching them. 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: “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?”

Do take risks and ask people you admire and respect (but don’t know well) if they would be open and willing to work with you as a board member. As stated earlier, you don’t have to make this into a big deal or make it seem like something more important and official than it actually is. Initially, the more relaxed and informal the approach is, the better.

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.

Do be persistent, but don’t be annoying. Give people time to make up their mind about your request, and if they don’t get back to you after a couple of weekly follow-ups, you probably have your 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 a serious player, and they’re actually testing your resolve. Take this opening seriously, and mark down their suggested follow-up date on your calendar. And, of course, follow up when the time is right.

Do 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 each person’s expertise to solve a specific problem. Don’t do this if you just want to have more people just hanging out in the meeting – that’s not being respectful of 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. Respect their time and set up your engagement with them 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.

A Long Term Commitment

As you embark on your second-act career, this personal board of directors can be one of the most important elements to your 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, worse, 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.

As an older worker, and especially if you become a consultant or entrepreneur, having the continuity of your board can be one of the most important reasons for your success.

  • 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!”

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    John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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