Updated: Jan 11
“If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together” - African proverb
None of us get where we are without others being involved - some help us, some hinder us. Some people we gather intentionally, some we gather unintentionally. This blog is about thinking through the process of intentionally gathering and appointing (metaphorically speaking), your personal board of directors that will supply you with wisdom, encouragement, sage advice, tough questions, a sounding board and some fun along the way.
It’s too easy to be distracted and diverted from our goals when we are being unintentional. In her book, The Artists Way, Julia Cameron refers to Crazy Makers - people who take you off your creative path, take you away from your goal, eat up your time and sabotage - intentionally or unintentionally - your ability to step into the best version of yourself. It’s too easy to let people like this into our lives when we are not being conscious, intentional and purposeful, when we are not managing our careers like a business.
But when you manage your career like a business, consciously, intentionally and purposefully, you are quite likely to find that you have surrounded yourself with people who give you perspective, tell it like it is, share information with you, and help you make decisions.
As the CEO of your career, like every CEO, you need a board of directors to support, guide, direct, coach, and help you optimise the value that you generate in your career.
A personal board of directors is not a new concept, it’s been discussed by numerous writers including Alaina G Levine in Science.org, Lisa Barrington in Forbes.com and Ashton Jackson in CNBC.com. The common concepts that come through clearly in all these and many other articles is that your personal board of directors:
act as a sounding board
provide unfiltered and impartial feedback
care about your success but aren’t so personally invested that they fall into the trap of only telling you what they think you want to hear
help you consider different perspectives and possible outcomes
is a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, genders, generations, industries - the more diverse they are the more you benefit from different perspectives
are will to be there for you and give guidance and advice when you ask for it
promote and connect you to others in their network, and
more than likely have no idea that you consider them to be part of your personal board of directors.
Who should be on your personal board of directors?
Imagine for a moment that you are the CEO of your business and you are sitting at the board room table with your directors. Who is at the table with you? Who have you chosen to surround yourself with. Who have you asked (consciously or unconsciously) to advise you?
There are two dimensions that I think should guide you when it comes to cultivating your personal board of directors:
The specific roles you want to fill (see 10 seats you need to fill on your personal board of directors)
Aim to have someone in each of the 10 seats you need to fill on your personal board of directors. These roles can be filled by anyone of any demographic as long as you have perspectives across diverse demographics - and most importantly, perspectives and life experiences that are different to your own.
Demographically - consider having people on your board from each of these groups:
Someone from another generation older than you
Someone from another generation younger than you
Several people from different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds to you
Someone who has completely different life experiences and lives in different circumstances to you
Someone whose first language is different to your first language
Someone with a different thinking preference to you
10 seats you need to fill on your personal board of directors
There are 10 seats that I believe you need to fill on your personal board of directors, and a possible 11th seat - but that one comes with a warning.
The Mentor is generally someone who has been where you want to go and can show you the way. She has professional experience and qualifications that you can relate to and she is in a position that you aspire to one day get to. She shows you the way step by step without trying to mould you into being a mini-me of herself.
“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” — Bob Proctor.
If you only try to be mentored by people who have achieved great heights or appear to be an overnight success, you are going to miss out on an enormous amount of potentially mentoring opportunities. There are mentors all around you - many of them who will be able to guide you and transfer their experience to you, are those who are relatively close to you in age and experience. They are people who are perhaps one or two levels more experienced than you and still remember how they navigated the transition that you are about to embark on.
If you are a graduate student looking to enter the world of work, you don't need to be mentored by the company CEO - you need to be mentored by someone a few years ahead of you who can help you navigate the transition from being a university student to being a valuable first-time employee.
If you are moving into your first management position, seek out someone who has navigated the transition from managing themselves to managing others - not someone who is now managing an entire organization.
If you are looking to position yourself to join a board, move into a CEO position, or transition into an entirely new career - find a mentor who has done those things in the last few years.
Set your sights on what you need to learn and the transitions in your career that you need to navigate over the next 3 - 5 years and identify someone who has recently navigated that journey. I can almost guarantee they will relate to you better than someone who made those transitions 10+ years ago because they will still have a clear memory of the challenges they faced, how they overcame them and what they wished they had known to ask at the time.
Your mentors' experience needs to be relevant to the journey you are wanting to go on and they need to still have a conscious memory of how they made that transition so they can break it down into clear steps for you.
You might also want to read: How to find a mentor (and myths that are getting in the way of your success)
When picking your coach, pick someone who asks really good questions - hard questions that make you think. The difference between a coach and a mentor is that your coach doesn’t have to have had any experience relevant to your professional career path - but he does need to be able to ask questions that help you think and make decisions for yourself.
The Coach could be a professional life or career coach, or it could be someone who embraces coaching methodologies of paraphrasing, perspective, questions, and most of all respects that the providing a safe container where you can be heard, you have the space to think out loud and where you are witnessed in your thinking and held accountable to your actions.
You might also want to read: How is coaching different to mentoring?
The Information Sharer
There is an overwhelming amount information in the world - some of it verified and some of it falling into the category of "TikTok science". It’s impossible to know everything, so the second best option is to know who knows what you need to know when you need to know it. The Information Sharer is that person on your board.
The Information Sharer is like your personal Google - but with the added benefit of being able to sift through the rubbish and share only what is backed up by their experience and skills.
The Information Sharer finds value in serving his network and shares knowledge, industry information and trends readily and freely. You can spot the Information Sharer on platforms like LinkedIn - they willingly create guidelines and tools for others, they have credentials to back up their work and they are life long learners who are constantly improving their competence and sharing it with others.
You might also want to read: Position yourself as a leader in your network
The Anti-Mentor doesn’t and shouldn’t know that he is on your board of directors. Why? Because the anti-mentor represents the qualities that you never want to take on. She is the antithesis of who you want to be. You observe their behaviours and they make you uncomfortable - perhaps because the way they show up in the world is a little too close to how you show up when you are not being your best self.
The Anti-Mentor acts as a red flag indicating how you might be if you are not intentional in how you show up every day. They display characteristics that potentially show you a mirror of yourself and give you the opportunity to observe your future self if you don't consciously address some of your shortcomings now.
The Anti-Mentor might also be that person who is exceptionally competent in their work, but that competence comes at a price to others because generally, the anti-mentor while technically competent, is not very pleasant to work with. They haven’t done their own work to develop their self-leadership, and their relational skills are low at best.
She is the person who you observe doing things, saying things, behaving in a way that does not inspire you. The anti-mentor is the example of the person, or at very least a set of behaviours, that you do not want to be known for.
When things get tough you need The Encourager to step in - this is the person who believes in you whole heartedly, who cheers you on, who reminds you why you are doing what you are doing. She’s that person helps you get started again even when you don’t feel like it and reminds you that you have a very important WHY that guides you.
The Encourager can be gentle, she can be fun, she can be firm and sometimes she can be pushy, but she is always encouraging - encouraging you to take a moment to breath, encouraging you to reflect on what’s getting in your way, encouraging you to ask for help, encouraging you to share the load. While The Encourager can be highly optimistic and upbeat, she knows that there are days when things get difficult - she normalises this for you and encourages you to get perspective.
This is not about toxic positivity at all - this is about acknowledging that sometimes you fail but you are not a failure, that sometimes you get angry but you are not an angry person, that sometimes you are uncertain about the way forward but you are not an uncertainty or directionless.
She never ever says “Cheer up!” or “Look on the bright side!” “Get over it” or “It's all going to be okay” or “Everything is going to work out.” “Man up” or “Tough it out.” Instead she acknowledges that you are struggling, encourages you to explore what’s going on and offers support.
She’s the person that says things like:
“Your feelings make sense. What can I do to support you through this?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Do you want to find a solution together that could help you?”
The Inner Mentor
The Inner Mentor is your best board member to be honest - because she is always with you - because she IS you. She is a wiser, older, calmer, more evolved, more integrated, future version of yourself and a concept from Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big :Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, that has been quite revolutionary for for my coaching clients.
Your Inner Mentor is always with you, available to guide you when you are are ready to connect with her.
She is a future version of you that has already done what you are setting out to do, a version who has already overcome the struggles that you are experiencing now, a version that knows the answers and can guide you in how to cope, how to thrive thrive, how to move forward. She is an intrinsic part of you and should probably be the chairperson of your personal board of directors as she is always with you and knows you better than any other external mentor ever will.
In all the work I have done with coaching clients since learning about the Inner Mentor, my clients have always been able to access wisdom from within.
The Devils Advocate
Your Devils Advocate asks you provocative questions. He can rattle your cage a little in the process and shake up your thinking. This is the person that you seek out when you know you have a blind spot, when you need someone to poke holes in your ideas with the objective of helping you improve on your theory. A really great devils advocate will:
Attack your theory, not you.
Provide different data and logic to diversify your thinking and conclusions
Offer alternatives to evaluate your thoughts against
Know when to stop
There’s a tendency to avoid the Devils Advocate because they really can poke holes in your thinking - and set you back a little. But the benefit is once you have consulted your Devils Advocate you will be absolutely certain that you have considered everything.
The Truth Teller
The Truth Teller is a valuable board member who embraces what Kim Scott refers to as Radical Candour - she cares deeply, she challenges you directly. This is the director who tells it like it is. She is the brave, courageous but also compassionate director who gives you the feedback that no-one else will give you.
The Truth Teller is a rare person to have on your personal board of directors, so when you find one, acknowledge her courage in keeping it real, and thank her for helping you lear and grow.
The Sponsor is the only director that needs to be from your own organisation. She is the person who speaks for you, who helps you get the development opportunities and roles that you need to move upwards in the organisation. The Sponsor has a personal stake in advocating for you - she looks good when you succeed, she looks bad when you fail.
Sponsors actively seek out high performers to advocate for as their proteges. Sponsors go out of their way to give you a hand up in the organisation, to introduce you to people who could help you advance your career. A sponsor makes sure that you on the radar of decision makers - that they know your name.
Not everyone has a sponsor on their board of directors - but she is a director that you really need to have because she's one of the few directors who have a personal stake in your success and actively choose to sponsor you.
To have a sponsor on your personal board of directors means that you have to actively and intentionally cultivated a relationship with a sponsor. Your work needs to be good, but don’t rely on it speaking up for you.
You need to speak up for yourself and actively seek out and cultivate relationships with executives and leaders above you in your organisation.
The Connector is someone who connects people together. He knows a lot of people and is great at making introductions, bringing people together, and finding common ground between people. He has a way of helping you identify who you need to know and then puts you in contact with an introductory email or text message.
He’s the person at a conference who says “Oh Briony come over here - I want you to meet Graham” and then proceeds to tell both of you what you have in common and why you should meet. The Connector is generous in introducing you to his carefully cultivated network.
Warning: The Inner Critic
Sometimes when we are not careful, our Inner Critic finds her way to the table. Be warned, there is no room in your personal board of directors for your Inner Critic. Be careful of giving your inner critic a seat at the table because she has an uncanny knack of arm wrestling your other board members away from the table and taking over with her loud voice.
We know she is merely trying to protect you and warn you of perceived danger the moment you seem to be getting to the edge of your comfort zone - but assure her that your board of directors are there to support and guide you over the threshold of your comfort zone, through the failure zone and into the learning and growth zone.
There are a couple things you can do when she pops up at the table - one is to quieten her voice with compassion, the other is to reframe her voice and interpret her message in a way that can be quite exciting.
Quietening your Inner Critic. When we ignore our inner critics they just get louder - they are like that board member that pounds their fists on the table demanding to be heard. But the moment we give them compassionate attention, and they feel like their concerns are being recognised, it’s quite amazing how they can quieten down.
Reframing your Inner Critic. Our Inner Critic starts waving a flag when we are at the edge of our comfort zone. Her intention is to say "don't go out there, it's scary and you will fail". BUT the reframe is this: You are at the edge of your comfort zone and out there are the opportunities to learn and grow! Yes there is the potential for failure and vulnerability, but it's through failure and vulnerability that we learn, and when we learn intentionally, we grow. So when you hear your Inner Critic starting to bang on your boardroom table, maybe be curious about what's outside your comfort zone, what you can do to lean into the opportunity, and who on your personal board of directors might be able to guide, support and encourage you.
Points for reflection and action
Who is on your personal board of directors?
Which seats at your personal boardroom table are vacant? Who could fill these vacant seats?
Which of your personal board of directors knows that they are on your board?
Whose board are you a director on?
What role are you playing on their board? Is it a role that you are proud to be playing (make sure you are not playing the Anti-Mentor role!)?
Watch the Youtube recording of a panel discussion that I was part of for the Women in Mining South Africa Mentoring Programme.
I thrive on conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.
I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself. I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.
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