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A ‘personal board of directors’ can help you navigate challenges in your career

I was interviewing a source for a story when I received an unexpected gift. Sandra Smith, a corporate and executive education program officer at Brown University, was telling me about strategies for leading multigenerational teams. As our discussion progressed, she happened to mention the importance of each and every team member having their own personal board of directors. My mind perked up. I knew about boards of directors for companies—but how does that work for an individual?

As Smith sees it, a personal board of directors is “a group of individuals you assemble in your mind for the purpose of navigating your career and life in general.” When she defined the concept for me, it immediately made sense and I thought, “A personal board of directors? Yes, please!” I also realized that I’d had multiple boards of directors throughout my career, even though I didn’t call them that. I liked the idea of formalizing my list of individual mentors into a collective body of professionals who can advise, guide, and assist me as issues come up in my career. So, ever since that interview in 2017, I’ve kept a list of my personal board of directors.

The concept is similar in many ways to how boards of directors function at companies. But a key difference is that members of a personal board of directors may not even know it exists. The members won’t meet regularly, nor would they be expected to work collectively. And that is fine, because a personal board of directors is just that—something that’s personal. The vital point is that you have thoughtfully selected members who have diverse perspectives and experiences, and who have demonstrated that they’re willing to be there for you when you need advice. They can answer your questions, promote you to their network, serve as a sounding board, help you find new opportunities, and play devil’s advocate as you consider your next move.

My own personal board of directors has helped me in myriad ways. Eleven years ago—before I even knew to call it my “personal board of directors”—I enlisted its help when I was transitioning from working as a full-time program director at a university to working as a full-time professional speaker and freelance writer. This was a critical moment for me. Scary. Uncertain. Although I believed a future full of intellectual delights awaited me, I knew that I needed to have a diversity of perspectives in my armory to set myself up for success.

My board consisted of professionals with whom I had interacted or collaborated, or who had mentored me over the years. They were from different fields and industries, and they represented a variety of career levels within their professions. I emailed the members individually to tell them I would be leaving my job and diving fully into my own business—and to ask to set up a phone meeting to get their thoughts and advice.

I’m glad I did that because my board members were insightful and helpful. A few of them asked for my CV and offered advice on how to improve it. Others helped me by sharing how their organizations hire outside speakers and writers, and they introduced me to the people involved in those hiring decisions. But—in keeping with how a board typically functions—not everyone was in agreement and supportive of my move. One told me to beware of the challenges of self-employment and encouraged me to get “a real job.” I appreciated the contrarian perspective, even if I didn’t take the advice, because it’s good to think carefully about your entire range of options and the challenges you may face.  

Multiple perspectives are always helpful. That is why you need an entire board of directors, rather than a single mentor. I’ve personally found that seeking out these diverse viewpoints is vital in career growth and, in particular, for designing my own unicorn career. Case in point: The person who told me to consider a traditional vocation with a steady paycheck is also the person who lit the biggest fire in me to work even harder—in part because I wanted to show myself that she was wrong.

So, how can you establish your own personal board of directors? I’d recommend starting with those around you, especially if you’re still a student. Do you have an adviser, colleague, or acquaintance who has proved that they want to support you and your vision? Have they provided you with guidance and information, perhaps about hidden or unexpected opportunities such as unique fellowships, courses, or subfields you would find exciting? Do you find yourself having unplanned discussions with them about navigating the present as you consider your future prospects? Do you leave the meetings filled with ideas, enthusiasm, and pride about how your achievements can lead you to even greater success and joy? These types of organic, supportive discussions are indicative of potential members of your board of directors.

Here are a few tips for selecting and maintaining your board:

Strive for diversity in background, education, geography, field, and sector. Don’t populate your board with a narrow selection of professors in your sub-sub-subfield from your institution (although that might be your starting point). Instead, look to expand your reach and find people who can offer unique viewpoints.

Treat your board as a dynamic entity. Your board will expand as you progress in your career and meet, connect, and invest in more relationships with other professionals. Its makeup will also change depending on your needs and goals, as well as shifts in the economy and job market. For instance, if you start contemplating a midcareer transition into another field, then you’ll want to strive to add people to your board who work in that field.

Consider adding people who work in organizations and roles that are aspirational for you. They’ll help you gain the proper insight into how you can move in that direction, too. “Being deliberate about staffing your board means you have to have clarity around your career goals,” Smith told me during a recent conversation. “Think about who can be resources in this domain.”

Include mentors and nonmentors. There is value in populating your board with people who are not specifically mentors but have more of a casual relationship with you—even those who you consider peers, Smith notes. She adds that people in midlevel positions—people who have not achieved principal investigator or chief executive officer status, for example—are just as relevant to have on your board as senior leaders are.

Stay in touch with your board members. Let them know your goals, ideas, and needs. Share with them your milestones, such as finishing a course or learning a certain technique in the lab. Don’t be afraid to request a phone or Skype meeting to ask them questions about their careers and fields.

Remember to make the board experience a win-win. Always ask yourself what you can do to help your board members, and don’t be shy to ask them, too! It is important that you always view your board in this capacity, as a mutually beneficial partnership. “The relationships that work have a shared common ground and trust that develops over time,” says Smith. “Be committed to building a relationship with this person by finding ways to find that common ground and to genuinely add value. It might seem daunting for people who are just coming out of school, but it could be as simple as taking an interest in the person and sharing an article which might be of interest.” Look for ways to craft that win-win relationship in an authentic manner.

Establishing a personal board of directors can help you accomplish your goals, no matter where you are in your career path or where you want to go. And it is even more important given the nature of modern STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. “Today’s worker is likely to constantly change their role [as they adapt] to the economy,” says Smith. “The more decisions you have to make in your career, the more you want a sounding board.”

A sound board of directors is that ticket to success that you deserve.

Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled Networking for Nerds.

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