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Justin Locke

Do You Have a Personal Board of Directors?

Why it is imperative that you have one.

March 5, 2012
by Justin Locke

Development of corporate boards is a common topic of discussion, but today I would like to share thoughts on a slight variation of this, which is developing a personal board of directors.

This is hardly a new concept. We all have our personal networks, support systems and management consultants. If you’re lucky, you have a family system that supports you as well. But a personal board of directors is a little different, as it often contains people who are “out of network.” There is no one correct way to do this, but I thought I would share my approach, for the purpose of inspiring thought and discussion.

My personal board of directors includes a wide gamut of resources. Some folks help with issues of social skills. One woman advises me on all my clothing purchases. Some of them advise me on business strategy. Several people look at first drafts of my books, articles and promotional videos. They have kept me from publishing some truly embarrassing stuff.

The most important attribute of a member of your personal board of directors is the willingness to tell you the truth. This is much harder than it sounds. The truth is often unpleasant, so most people are motivated to either say nothing or just tell you what you want to hear. This is where being “out of your social network” comes into play. People who have some personal or financial interest in maintaining their relationship with you will always be motivated to sugarcoat and people who see you every day will generally default to a tactful response. An effective member of your personal board of directors is fully capable of saying, “Yes, those jeans DO make you look fat.” Not immediately pleasant, but in the long run they will save you time and keep you from learning things the hard way.

I am not saying that close friends or vendors cannot be on your personal board of directors, but this kind of principled honesty that goes against immediate financial or personal interest is, in my experience, relatively rare.

Another element of your personal board of directors is perspective. If, for example, your personal board of directors is made up entirely of other CPAs, this can give rise to having a group of people with siloed views or narrow perspectives. There are many organizations that only have their members give presentations at their meetings. There is a lot to be said for shop talk, but within both individuals and organizations, there is always the tendency to maintain the standard dogmas and not rock the boat. So it’s always best to cultivate communication with someone out of network who can provide you with a different perspective.

That said, I’m not suggesting that you always follow your personal board of director’s advice to the letter. Your board members all have limitations as well. They aren’t going to be right every time, but the times that they are right can give you a fabulous advantage.

The next element I look for in my personal board of directors is experience. In the information age, it’s important to have filters in place. A lot of useless information is out there. Everyone has advice and opinions to share. People who are loyal to a given dogma are eager to find more followers to reinforce their beliefs. What you want is to find advice that is based on real experience and hard data, not on popular mythology or commonly accepted scholarly theory.

People with real experience may have bad news for you and they may say things that will run completely counter to conventional wisdom. They are often tired of trying to explain reality to people who don’t want to hear about it, so sometimes a certain amount of effort and cultivation is required to access their knowledge.

Building a Personal Board of Directors

Where do you find these people? Well, I confess that I just stumbled across most of the members of my personal board of directors. Some are family, some are social acquaintances and some are people I know professionally. But like a regular board of directors, a personal board is something you can cultivate.

One of the primary purposes of a personal board of directors is to advise you on how to solve big problems. That may sound negative, but see the advantage: People love to solve problems. For example, many years ago I met a person who worked at a speakers’ bureau. It is hard for newcomers to get listed and promoted by a speakers’ bureau and he told me flat out that I just wasn’t ready. But instead of just walking away, I started to e-mail him every three months with another question about developing my speaking career. He gave me excellent advice, I learned a lot and our growing relationship eventually led to his bureau taking me on as a client.

Being asked to help in problem-solving is huge. It is far more interesting than just being asked for money. People become successful by solving problems and after they have succeeded, they are often bored. Presenting such a person with a big problem that you are facing is a major sign of respect. It is also fun for them to take on a problem vicariously, because there aren’t any major consequences if they can’t solve it. Also, your ambition is appealing. If you are trying to rise higher in life and you are asking someone else how you can do that, well, that’s interesting. Well-connected, successful people all started out as ambitious people. People always want to help you and that is partly just normal, but it’s also because someday, if you succeed in reaching your goals, you may be in a position to help them as well.

When I come up against an unusual problem, I have no compunction about emailing some highly successful person and asking them how I can solve it. If you are sincere and it’s a genuinely hard problem and you don’t abuse the privilege, you can put highly successful and even (if you can find their e-mail address) famous people on your personal board of directors.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity. He was recently featured on authors@google.You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.

© Justin Locke