The meeting was over, and I returned to my office feeling extremely satisfied with the results. Then I heard a knock on the door and looked up to see a co-worker who had come to gently set me straight.
As it turned out, what I thought had been a successful meeting regarding a major decision instead had left others confused about my thinking and concerned about what was ahead. I thought I had done a great job of communicating and inspiring, only to learn I hadn’t taken the time to provide some much-needed context. In my eagerness to drive the decision, I had left out valuable details to earn buy-in.
We’ve all had situations when our self-awareness gets lost in self-denial, Or in my case, lost in my own POV. Realistic self-assessment is incredibly difficult. We’re either too easy or too hard on ourselves, and neither is good.
- When we’re too easy, we begin to think our way is the best and only way, and we disregard the diverse views of others. We become overly confident, take chances we shouldn’t and think we’re more effective than we really are.
- When we’re too hard on ourselves, we question every decision. We’re more hesitant than we should be and don’t trust our instincts enough. We need too much validation, don’t feel worthy of respect and suffer from the imposter syndrome.
Either way, we are not leading at our best and those around us suffer as a result.
The biggest problem: Getting feedback
It takes hard work to strike the right balance and have a fair appraisal of ourselves so we can play to our strengths while continually striving to improve our weaknesses.
The biggest problem is we often don’t get the feedback we need to inform our self-perceptions. It’s challenging for others to tell the truth or share less than flattering observations with us, especially if we’re in a position of power. We often don’t get accurate, honest comments about how our words, actions and intentions are perceived.
One of the best ways to gain regular, meaningful feedback is to put together a personal board of directors – a team of mentors who will tell it like it is when we need to hear it most.
Wendy Davidson, the president of U.S. Specialty Channels for the Kellogg Company, introduced this idea to me several years ago, because she believes her personal board has been invaluable to her highly successful career. I couldn’t agree more.
Benefits of a personal board of directors
Consider some of the countless ways a personal board can advance your career. They can:
- Offer practical advice about how to tackle new opportunities to increase your chances of getting key decisions right the first time
- Serve as an informal coach who can provide wisdom about challenging situations or interactions with others
- Share subject-matter expertise to expand your understanding on a specific topic
- Point you toward resources and tools that will further your development and learning Introduce you to people to help expand your network
- Hold you accountable for changing an attitude or behavior impacting your professional performance
- Offer diverse points of view and different life experiences to challenge your thinking and broaden your view of the world
- Provide “big picture” perspective about your career as you consider job opportunities or career moves
How to form your board
The concept of a personal board of directors isn’t new, and most leaders I know see it as a great idea. But many never give the time and energy it takes to form and take advantage of such a board. So, how do you actually pull it off? It’s not as hard as it seems, but it does require a bit of thinking and planning. I’ve mapped out a simple process with these three steps to establishing a personal board of directors:
1. Assess your biggest needs
Start by listing of your five biggest challenges/needs — things that are potentially holding you back in your career or impacting your work/life balance. Some examples:
- Unfamiliar with practical financial principles that impact my strategic thinking abilities
- Not managing my emotions effectively under pressure
- Not enough knowledge of front-line operations
- Working too late in the evenings on a regular basis
- Feeling confused and overwhelmed by complex decisions
If it helps, turn these challenges into simple “goal statements,” such as:
- Develop a working knowledge of the most useful financial principles for my role
- Keep my cool more often when I am facing deadlines
2. Identify prospects
Once you have a better sense of your needs, think about who could help you most. Consider asking people who:
- Are in a position you aspire to have someday
- Come from another company in your industry (that you don’t compete with)
- Come from an entirely different industry
- Are experts in an area you need to learn more about
- Can feed your spirit and encourage you to invest in yourself
- Are willing to be brutally honest to help, not hurt
- Will always have your best interests at heart
List each prospect’s name, organization, area of expertise, and which one or more of your five goals can they help you with. Make sure you have current contact information for each prospect.
Make as long a list as you like, but an ideal personal board has 3-5 members. You’ll need more prospects since everyone may not be able to help.
3. Make the ask
Once you have your list, take some time to write a short script or a few bullet points to guide your conversation so you can articulate your thinking clearly and succinctly when you call each prospect.
For example, you’ll want to explain why you are forming a personal board of directors, what is involved if someone agrees to join and how each person could help you with one or more of your five opportunities for growth.
Here’s an example of what you could say and why you need to say it:
- I’ve been evaluating my career, identifying my strengths and my opportunities for growth. I’ve set some specific goals for myself that I believe will further my career. (establishes that you have done your homework)
- I greatly admire what you have accomplished, particularly ___________ (name something related to one or more of your five areas for growth). This expertise and your career success would be invaluable to me. (explains why you are asking them)
- I have decided to form a personal board of directors and would love to have you as a part of this team of super mentors for me. (clarifies your plan of action)
- What that simply means is I would like to connect with you once every few months to ask for your advice or seek your expertise when I know it could make a big impact on me. I would like to treat you to lunch or dinner, or we could arrange to meet by phone/video call, too – whatever is easier for you. (tells them how much time would be involved on their end)
- I would like your help as I continue on my developmental journey. Would you be willing to be on my personal board of directors? (makes the ask)
Start with your top prospects and work your way through your list, ensuring that you create a board with diverse strengths and expertise. Make notes of the feedback you receive to help shape how you bring your board to life and what their preferences might be for how you engage with them. Even prospects who cannot take the time to join your board now will likely have some advice for you.
TIP: Don’t fear ‘the ask’
One piece of advice Wendy shared with me is not to be afraid to ask. Many times, we worry that asking for help is a burden to others. Wendy reminded me that looking to others for advice can be a compliment. You’re saying, “You have something that I can learn from, and I’d like you to be a part of my career moving forward.”
A few suggestions on next steps:
- Once you have secured the agreement of and feedback from your board members, send them a thank-you email or hand-written note.
- Look ahead on your schedule to identify times you can connect with them in person or by phone/video. Make a note to reach out to them several weeks in advance so they can make time to meet.
- Prepare for each meeting so you can give them an overview of what’s going on in your career. If you have a specific request, let them know the topic in advance so they can think about how to help.
- Always send a thank-you note any time your board members help you. Let them know the result and the impact they have made.
If you want to take a deeper dive on this topic – to hear the full story about how and why Wendy created her board, and how she used this throughout her career – read Chapter 3 in my book, Leading Through the Turn.
I am proud to say Wendy is on my personal board of directors, and I am on hers. Her impact on my leadership journey has been profound, and it is an honor to help her whenever I can. Imagine how your personal board of directors will impact the trajectory of your career. Don’t be afraid to ask!
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