How to Build Your Personal Board of Directors

A few years ago, my book club read a book on being transgressive in the workplace. It wasn't a particularly wonderful or memorable book, but there was one sentence in one chapter that has become a guiding principle for me: Everyone should have their own personal board of directors.

Since then, I've intentionally collected mentors whom (whether they know it or not) I consider to be members of my board. I reach out to them one-on-one to get their perspective on challenges and opportunities that come my way. One time, I even convened a full board meeting over vegetarian chili in the kitchen of my third floor apartment. (It was amazing. It felt radical and nerdy and special and weirdly formal but it was the critical point when I decided to pursue my certification in professional coaching—and I'm forever grateful to those wise women in the room helped me to find clarity that it was the right next step for me.)

Over the years, my mentors/members of my board have called out in me some of the key elements of who I am and what I bring to the table—things that I didn't recognize about myself or have the words to name:

  • One of my greatest strengths is managing up (I was told this before I knew managing up was a thing...more on that below).
  • I'm a generalist and a systems thinker (I thought I there was something wrong about the fact that I couldn't commit to a specific area of expertise, but it turns out having my hands in all of the departments was a unique strength).
  • I'm a strategic thinker in ways that extend beyond organizational strategy—into my personhood (this seed planted by my mentor grew into what Penney Leadership is today).

The way that these mentors saw me and reflected myself back to me was critical to how I've developed my career and how I understand myself. 

When I'm mentoring, I always try to bring this charge to time spent with my mentee: to reflect back what I see in them on the chance that they haven't noticed that they are unique in that particular way, or that there's a name for the skill that they can highlight and further develop in themselves.

To build your personal board of directors:

1. Sit down and write a list of five people from different areas of your life whom you would consult when making a big decision—it could be a former or current supervisor, a co-worker, a friend whom you think is super smart, a family member whose opinion you value, a mentor, or a former professor. It helps if they have a little distance from the outcome. For example, I wouldn't consider my husband to be on my board of the directors because he's got too much skin in the game and can't offer as much of an outside perspective as others.

2. When you have a decision to make, call some one-on-one meetings (or a full board meeting, if you're a nerd like me) and prepare some questions to get their perspective on what you're facing. 

3. Gather their input and take it all into consideration, but remember that when it comes down to it, you are the only one who can make the decision. No one else is an expert on you the way that you are an expert on you—they're just offering some additional data, perspectives, and questions for you to work with in deciding what's right for you. 

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