By Mariam G. MacGregor, author of the Everyday Leadership series.
When most people hear the phrase “board of advisors,” they probably think of school boards, a board of trustees, or a corporation’s board of advisors. Boards provide a vehicle for organizations to seek wise counsel from a collection of thoughtfully selected (and, in some cases, elected) individuals skilled in a variety of topics. People join boards, often as volunteers, because someone recognizes their expertise and how it supports the mission, vision, and success of an organization. Having a board of advisors is valuable because it prevents decision-makers from operating in a vacuum or straying from their true mission.
Early in my career, a friend and I were wishing we had our own personal boards of advisors. At that moment, we looked at each other and said, “Why not?” I assembled a group of go-to people who make up several different, and in some cases overlapping, boards. I turn to my boards when seeking guidance in my role, when I need mentorship and candid advice for professional clarity, and when, as a human, I need advice specific to the different seasons of life. In all cases, I’ve found a way to surround myself with people who bring yin to my yang, methodical management to my option-oriented outlook, and who ask great questions and make me think. This model has become a valuable and instrumental tool in my life professionally (having someone to help me explore solutions or practice difficult conversations) and personally (having others with whom to unpack parenting fails).
If this sounds like a practice you’d like to put into play, consider these tips:
- Have a purpose. Before developing a personal board of advisors, be honest about your goals with yourself and with potential board members. Are you seeking guidance for personal or professional reasons? Are you going to share accountability—meaning you serve on their board equally as they serve on yours? Are there specific ground rules—for example, regarding hearing difficult critiques or advice without becoming resentful or criticizing the messenger? The purpose of any board of advisors is to have people who share or respect your values even if you don’t share opinions. For my boards, I seek to assemble people with whom disagreement and opposing views can be explored, followed by closure with a cup of coffee and sometimes even a hug.
- Choose the right people. It’s great to have some people on your board who encourage and nurture ideas you pitch. But also stack your team with people who care enough that they’ll challenge your ideas if the ideas are flawed (or are just plain stupid), if you’re headed in the wrong direction, or if you’ve lost perspective on a situation because you’re wading through the weeds. And listen when these people speak, because they’re probably better at seeing your blind spots than you are. When I want (or maybe need) to know the hard truth, there are people on my board who can—and will—give it when I ask for it. And sometimes when I don’t.
- Strive for diversity. If your board reflects what you see when you look in the mirror, opportunities for growth are limited. Build a board with people who, as much as possible, bring different backgrounds, personal and political beliefs, genders, ages (older and younger), ethnicities, racial and cultural lenses, social and economic classes, and so on. By doing this, you get to strengthen your empathy muscle every time you seek advice. People see the world differently because of our differences. More times than I can count, I’ve discovered a better way to do or say things or talked more deeply about difficult topics as a direct result of having diverse board members.
- Schedule time. The people on my boards live around the country. While I might visit with some of them in person, most of the time we communicate by phone or email. When I want to reach out to someone in a “hey, how are you doing?” way, I just call. When I know my call is going to involve major brain cell usage for the two of us, I email and get on the person’s calendar. That way, neither of us is short on time and we’re both clear that the purpose of the call is not about catching up.
- Define dual roles. One of my most trusted mentors is also one of my dearest long-term friends. Early in our relationship, I really turned to her as a mentor. But over the years, it’s been the friendship that ties us. Now when I need her guidance as a mentor, I start the conversation with “This is a mentor call” so we stay focused on the outcomes and are efficient with our time. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into friendship and talk about everything except the real reason for my call.
- Return the favor. Life is a two-way street. Avoid temptation to turn yours into a one-way.
If you have a personal board of advisors, what are some situations they’ve guided you through? How have you grown because others were willing to highlight your blind spots? What’s the greatest accomplishment you’ve achieved because your board of advisors didn’t like your first idea?
Mariam G. MacGregor, M.S., is director of employee engagement and organizational strategy at TCU and a nationally recognized leadership consultant who works with schools (K through 12 and higher education), nonprofit agencies, faith groups, and communities interested in developing meaningful, sustainable leadership efforts for kids, teens, and young adults. Mariam lived in Colorado for many years, where she served as the school counselor and coordinator of leadership programs at an alternative high school and received honorable mention for Counselor of the Year. She currently lives in Texas with her husband and three kind kids. Learn more about Mariam at mariammacgregor.com.
Free Spirit books by Mariam MacGregor:
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