Your Personal Board of Directors

personal board of directorsWhen you are a leader, it can be difficult to get candid feedback from those who work for and with you, as they may want to please you or fear facing repercussions. This rings particularly true for executives and those with power at the top of hierarchical organizations – and is where the concept of a personal board of directors is incredibly helpful. The intention of a personal board of directors is to garner honest feedback from a broad range of trustworthy thinkers and perspectives who are willing to give you candor.

To get candid feedback, some people rely on their boss, some rely on their spouse, some rely on their mentor, and others – horrifyingly – on their parents. It is unwise to rely on just one person’s opinion to gain broad perspective. You need multiple points of view – particularly from those who don’t share the same culture, worldview, and values as you do.

What Is a Personal Board of Directors?

While it is called a personal board of directors, the use case I refer to here is for professional leadership settings; I just don’t want to confuse it with an actual formal Board of Directors for one’s organization, as many leaders I work with report into a Board of Directors.

A personal board of directors is a group of between five and 10 individuals that can help you make sound decisions, give you advice and feedback, challenge your assumptions, broaden your professional network, brainstorm and gut check ideas, and generally expand your perspective and thinking.

You want to meet with each person on your board on a regular basis to get the most from your partnership. If you are looking for someone with whom you can give and get candid feedback, unveil blind spots, advocate for you, and help you navigate leadership challenges, an annual meeting won’t cut it.

Your personal board of directors generally won’t be meeting together (although they can, as in the case of a mastermind-like group), but these are people you can count on for meaningful conversations around challenges and opportunities in your work and life. It’s up to you to develop a plan to connect with them on a consistent basis.

Who Do You Appoint to Your Personal Board of Directors?

You don’t want everyone on your board to look and think like you. In fact, the best personal boards look and think in very different ways than you. In most leadership contexts, thought conflict is key, and your personal board of directors is no different. Thought conflict is when there are diverging or conflicting attitudes, understandings, interests, values, ideas, or thought processes. On teams, this can cause a clash among individuals or highlight competing priorities, sometimes leading to relationship conflict. However, if thought conflict is respected and managed well, it can lead to more strategic decisions, innovation, and ultimately stronger results.

On your personal board of directors, these kinds of diverging ways of thinking can be extremely valuable in garnering the diversity of thought necessary to build a broad perspective. Simply put, it would not be a strong board of directors if every board member agreed with one another and the CEO. The same goes for your personal board.

A diverse board of directors helps you think more creatively, offers multiple perspectives, connects dots between seemingly disparate areas, and reveals blind spots. You want people on your board who will stretch your thinking – this means that your board should include people with greater expertise than you in certain areas of your field, people who come from different backgrounds and fields, and people who do not share your gender, culture, generation, identity, or role. This is so they can provide different points of view.

When you consider building your personal board of directors, think of people you know from different places and times in your life, for example/inspiration:

  • Colleagues from past and current companies
  • Mentors or people in a role or area you are aspiring to grow into
  • Your boss and others up-power in your organization
  • Those you attended school with
  • Those in your industry but in a different organization
  • Those in a completely different industry, but similar role
  • Someone who is at least 15 years older than you
  • Someone who is at least 15 years younger than you
  • An influencer who is especially skillful at gaining consensus, earning respect, and getting others on board with new initiatives or projects
  • A colleague who is well-connected in your industry
  • A thought leader in your field
  • An executive coach

There are a number of ideal roles you’ll want to fill on your personal board of directors. There are no hard and fast rules here, but you might consider a couple of people from each of the following categories:

Support System (Your Fans)

Your support system is likely who you turn to when you are having a tough time and need an ear. They are the ones who say the right thing when times are tough and move mountains to help you through rough patches. It is clear they have your best interest top of mind. These are the people you trust in all ways.

The people in your support system may be the best people to help you uncover your blind spots because of this high level of trust. They can help you hear the feedback you don’t want to hear – if they are also willing to be candid with you and offer specific and actionable feedback. Because the people who fall into your support system are your fans, the onus might be on you to press them for more candid feedback if they are not inherently challengers.

Challengers

Who in your life tells it to you like it is – no holding back? You want at least two challengers on your board of directors to help you see things more clearly. These are the people who say what everyone else is often thinking but does not have the courage to say. They may be the same people as your support system, but are often different.

It is your responsibility to make sure you are receiving their feedback without defensiveness. You don’t have to agree with every opinion they share, but you do have to appreciate their willingness to share it with you. If you meet their feedback with defensiveness, they won’t continue to offer it.

The key point here is that you don’t want to include those who will say things just to make you feel good; you want to choose people you know will be honest with you, even when it means telling you something you don’t want to hear (but probably need to hear it!) It won’t help you to grow or gain perspective if everyone on your board thinks the same way you do. Challengers are not afraid to go against the grain, play devil’s advocate, and say it like it is. In fact, most challengers actually enjoy this type of healthy debate.

Mentors

Mentors are the ones who have walked in your shoes or along a similar path as you in the past, or perhaps they are where you would like to be professionally in five or ten years. They’ve “been there, done that,” and can offer wise perspective from that experienced vantage point. Mentors could be within your organization or may be in a different organization but in the same field as you.

Senior-to-You Leaders

Make sure to include at least one leader in your organization who has more power than you do. These are the top players in your organization who are best positioned to help you broaden your professional network and help you advocate for your career, your projects, your team resources, and your ideas.

Think about all of the people with power and influence at your organization who you could forge a relationship with. While this may be your direct manager, I recommend finding at least one person other than your direct supervisor in this category, as you already have a direct line to your boss and if you have a good relationship with your boss, they are probably already on your personal board. It’s a good idea to have several of these key leaders in mind as prospects on your personal board of directors, as people come and go from organizations and an internal, up-power role on your personal board is key.

Imagine if you had a strong relationship with several leaders in your organization who are familiar with the value you bring and can advocate on your behalf, influence resources for your team or project, impact your next role or promotion, or sponsor you in some way during your organizational tenure. This would make your road ahead a little less rocky. Your task is to figure out how to demonstrate your value to them and be known to them, whether by sharing information, supporting their initiatives, or otherwise getting creative. Remember, the higher up they are, the more they can help you.

If you sit in the C-suite, consider if someone on your board could fit this description.

Adversaries

Who are the people who just don’t like you, have made your work-life more difficult, or in some way(s) have been on your opposition? While it may seem unconventional to appoint an adversary to your personal board of directors, it may be the best route you have to illuminate a truly diverse perspective on any given leadership challenge you are confronted with.

Think about it: Your adversaries may be the ones who criticize your strategy, point out your weaknesses (sometimes rather vocally), and even vote against your initiatives. Wouldn’t you rather hear what they have to say firsthand and preemptively, rather than through the grapevine after it has been shared with everyone else? Plus, you might be able to win them over.

You might have an outwardly cordial or even friendly relationship with your adversary, but hold competing priorities and ideas, so be sure to look below the surface for the right candidates.

An Executive Coach

Certainly, a coach can fulfill part of the role here, as their job is to help you uncover your blind spots, be your thinking partner, and grow as a leader. It is helpful to also have at least a few others you can count on for diverse perspectives, idea sharing, and connection in general.

Case Study: Gina’s Personal Board of Directors

I have a client, we’ll call her Gina, who was stepping into a new role as CFO at a series-D funded company. We worked together to build her a personal board of directors that was robust and diverse, to set her up for success in her new role.

Gina’s Personal Board of Directors included:

  • Another executive at her level in her organization – who told her he did not want to hire her and voted to hire someone else in her stead. She was able to build a solid relationship with him and show him her value in a short period of time by appointing him to her personal board and nurturing the relationship.
  • Her boss – the CEO, who was critical in giving her the resources she needed to get her job done. They leaned on one another as thought partners.
  • Her former boss’s boss – this person was at her old company and was a C-suite executive with an outside perspective and strong sense of judgment. He had worked with her for six years prior, knew her well, and was unafraid to give her honest feedback without sugarcoating anything.
  • Her sister-in-law – an M&A attorney in a peripheral business who could give her expert advice on legal matters on a moment’s notice and a lawyer’s perspective on risk management.
  • A professor from her MBA program years ago – who she had kept in touch with and thought of as a mentor. This person was retired from the business world and his ideas were somewhat outdated, but his sense of judgement and level of wisdom was profound.
  • A Board Member – who worked on the Board of Directors at her organization. She worked closely with him, and they came to trust one another and share advice and support.
  • Her close friend – who worked as head of people in a completely different industry, but her perspective on how to lead a division of over 200 people, have difficult conversations, and motivate her employees never fell short.
  • Her executive coach – which was me. I filled the role of support system and challenger, depending on the moment.

The Evolving State of Your Personal Board of Directors

In today’s fast-paced world of work, leaders job-hop for any number of reasons – mergers, acquisitions,  organizational restructures, layoffs, or of their own volition. This means you will want to make sure you are building relationships with not just one person at your organization who has power; have several internal advocates in mind who could fill that role on your personal board of directors.

If a member of your board who is an internal sponsor does leave to go somewhere else, you can also use this as an opportunity. Keep in touch with them! They may be able to remain on your board in a new capacity and provide even broader perspective.

If you are the one who is moving on from your organization, it is also a great opportunity to refresh your board to include people from your past and present circles.

Enrollment for Your Personal Board of Directors

The members of your personal board of directors may not even know they are on it, so the enrollment process can be quite informal. You can certainly share their “board status” with them — or not. The more important point is to ensure you have the right mix of people on your board and you keep in touch with them regularly.

Let them know how much you respect and value their perspective and opinions, and always do what you can to return their favors. The support you give them will likely be wildly different from the support they give you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

For example, if you have a mentor on your personal board of directors who is giving you valuable insight from their years of experience, offer to help them with technology or another area you may know more about than they do. Or if a senior leader in your organization introduces you to influential leaders in their network, offer to provide them with some support or value within your sweet spot, whether it be referrals for professional services, recruiting, operations support, or helping their kid find a college internship.

In fact, the best way to enroll people into your personal board is simply to offer them support that you know they need. One of renowned social psychologist, Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of persuasion is the principle of reciprocity, which states that people generally feel obligated to do you a favor if they’ve received a favor from you. So beginning with an offer of support is the best way to get the support you need in the long run.

Formal Personal Boards of Directors

If you are in search of a personal board that is more formal and structured, you may consider joining a mastermind or leadership group, which may serve as your personal board of directors as well, depending on the group’s mission, dynamics, and structure. Organizations like Vistage and Chief orchestrate small groups that function similar to masterminds for executive leaders. Alternatively, you can find privately run groups or create your own.

I coach several different mastermind groups, both privately and through Chief’s Core program, each upholding a confidentiality agreement and commitment to listen to and support one another in both their businesses and personal lives. These are high-level, successful business owners or C-suite executives in organizations who do not feel they can talk freely to those who work for or with them, and so they use the mastermind to discuss confidential matters, share experiences, garner feedback, and learn from one another’s mistakes and wins. It is powerful to witness how much these members lean on one another for honest feedback and life support. Among each group are up to 10 other people they can count on at any time for honest and direct feedback and an open ear. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the groups scheduled additional sessions so they could connect more frequently, and their Slack channels and WhatsApp groups were far more active so members could support one another during the particularly uncertain time.

Whether in a mastermind, or among a personal board of directors that you curate, access to the relationships that matter and the perspectives you trust when you are a leader is critical. In her book Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World, Jennifer Garvey Berger gave the advice for leaders to find and connect with wise mentors and thinking partners, that is, people who can not only support your work, but also model new behavior, ask powerful questions, and challenge your assumptions in rapidly changing environments. Not only can your personal board of directors help you make better decisions and offer diverse perspectives, if you choose wisely, they can model what it is like to be a better leader.

By appointing the right people to your personal board of directors, you are offering yourself a source of personal and professional growth, growing your network, and you may also be generating more people in power who want to help you uplevel your success.

Exercise: Create a Personal Board of Directors

Now it is time to design your own personal board of directors. Make sure it is a diverse group of people in your life that are willing to be supportive and offer candid feedback. Here is a sample outline of a solid blend of the roles you need on your personal board of directors:

  • Personal Board Member – Support System:
  • Personal Board Member – Support System:
  • Personal Board Member – Support System:
  • Personal Board Member – Challenger:
  • Personal Board Member – Challenger:
  • Personal Board Member – Challenger:
  • Personal Board Member – Mentor:
  • Personal Board Member – Senior-to-you Leader:
  • Personal Board Member – Senior-to-you Leader:
  • Personal Board Member – Adversary:

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.