During my senior year of college, I launched my first business, an online community for employers to recruit entry-level professionals. I sought guidance from a family friend. Receiving advice from someone much more experienced taught me to appreciate mentors, and ultimately led me to understand how a carefully curated board of directors benefits a business.
Of course, there are major differences between a mentor and a board of directors. A corporate board member is financially incentivized to provide a business with direction. A mentor is personally motivated to offer advice to help an individual succeed, possibly because they see themselves in you or want to pay it forward. As I came to understand it all, I developed my own theory: I believe that career-minded professionals at every level should develop relationships with multiple mentors, essentially creating their own personal board of advisers.
Why a personal board of advisers is so important
Many people begin their careers with the expectation they’ll instantly find someone who will provide them with sage advice and help navigate their careers. However, a 2018 survey found that almost half of Americans have never had a professional mentor. In reality, you are responsible for actively managing your own career. To do this well, view yourself as a business developing a diverse board of advisers who are invested in your success. These advisers will offer different approaches, hold you accountable, and provide guidance throughout your career.
There’s no shortcut to experience. Receiving guidance from someone who has been in your shoes, or in similar shoes, is important. Studies show that good mentoring can lead to greater career success, including promotions, raises, and increased opportunities. Mentors provide you with the opportunity to ask the questions you may be afraid to ask your boss and can offer hard feedback when needed. They also help you gain perspective on a challenging situation by encouraging you to focus on your entire career, not only your current job.
There’s a level of trust in an adviser relationship. A good adviser is willing to act as a sounding board. For me, whenever I faced a new challenge, I looked toward my personal board of advisers to better understand the specific situation and provide guidance. Even though these advisers won’t know your situation as well as you, their shared experiences can help shape your approach to certain situations.
How to cultivate your personal board
To create your board, seek relationships with different people who can provide insight based on their various skills and backgrounds. It’s similar to what a business would seek in their corporate board members. Remember, you’re creating an informal board. You won’t actually hold board meetings or officially invite people to join. Instead, you’ll cultivate your board by asking an individual what they think about a certain situation or problem you’re facing. Over time, your personal board of advisors will be a small handful of mentors, most of whom will fit in more than one of the following categories:
- Industry expert
- Strong supporter
- Thoughtful critic
As you consider the four buckets above, be strategic with your selections. For example, it’s unusual to include a spouse, immediate family member, or close friend as they’re often too emotionally invested in your success. Instead, seek board members who will provide you with an unbiased opinion and are capable of giving you the reality check you may need. And, not every board member needs to be an individual. You may find support and guidance through an alternative mentor relationship, such as a professional association or networking group.
How to build your board
Research has shown that most mentor-mentee relationships develop naturally over time. This has been my personal experience as well. Throughout my career, I’ve actively established relationships with people that interested me because of their industry expertise, entrepreneurial ventures, or skills I’d like to further develop. Eventually, many of these professionals became advisors.
When you find someone you believe may be a good advisor, don’t simply ask them to be your mentor—develop a relationship first. Approach someone you admire and invite them out for a cup of coffee or request a brief phone call to conduct an informational interview. The conversation should allow you both to get to know each other. If it goes well, thank them and request another meeting so you can slowly build a relationship that may evolve into a mentorship. Look for opportunities to give back to them. This could be anything from providing a restaurant recommendation to offering help with a project or cause they care about.
Use your board of advisers wisely
Mutual trust and respect are key in any advisor relationship. Particularly, it’s important to appreciate your advisors’ time. A benefit of cultivating a personal group of advisors is that you can tailor your questions to specific ones based on your dilemma. Unlike a company’s board, there’s no financial reward for your board members, so it’s important to avoid overusing—or even worse, abusing—their generosity.
In addition to being cognizant of everyone’s time, you should also be aware of your own. Sometimes, it’s important to seek guidance from more than one board member, as varying experience and perspectives will help you make the best decision. However, acquiring too many points of view for every situation will deplete your time.
Advisers will come and go
My personal board of advisors has changed over the years, and yours will too. Eventually, you may find that you’ve outgrown an advisor or surpassed them in their skills. Or, factors like relocation, a career transition, or a considerable promotion may cause a major shake-up in your choice of mentors. Most advisor relationships are not built to last a lifetime, and that’s okay. When you focus on maintaining a small group of advisors, you’ll reap the benefits of their professional guidance throughout your career.