How (and why) to create a personal board of directors

Circle of trust

Entrepreneurs tend to be very independent-minded. And yes, that IS code for “stubborn and secretive.” I’m a long-time solopreneur and thoroughly stubborn business owner, and even I have to admit that we can all benefit from advice and support. As tempting as it is to do it all on your own, sometimes you need outside input. Especially in those first few months and years, trusting yourself to make every single business-shaping decision on your own can lead to disaster. Which is where a personal board of directors comes in.

I’m certainly not saying that entrepreneurs should ignore their instincts or mistrust their ability to make sound choices. No, indeed. I’m merely saying that in the first phases of launching a new endeavor, it can be unspeakably helpful to consult a group of trusted advisors.

In fact, creating a personal board of directors can be invaluable to business owners at any stage.

This is a practice that everyone from Harvard Business Review to Forbes has endorsed over the years, so I’m not just whistling “Dixie.”

Experts the world over have long believed that consulting a single mentor is less effective than consulting a group of mentors.

 

And it makes sense: The more expertise you have at your disposal, the easier it becomes to make informed choices.

Although a personal board will have some similarities to a formal board, you won’t need to enforce Robert’s Rules of Order. You won’t even need to meet in person! Here’s how to assemble and run a board of directors that will help you problem-solve and hone strategy as you build your business.

Who to recruit

Actually, let’s start with who NOT to recruit: Your friends.

Yes, they are smart and amazing and love you to bits, but that also means most of them are incredibly biased. In your favor, of course, but still biased! So unless you’ve got some seriously straight-shooting friends who aren’t afraid to be blunt, stick to colleagues. Look for:

  1. Someone with money smarts. Recruiting a board member who is financially savvy is essential. Not all money smarts are created equal, but everyone from venture capitalists to personal financial advisors will offer insights that non-money-centric folks lack.
  2. A truth-teller. We all have someone in our networks who is incapable of small talk and whose observations cut through life’s fluff like a white-hot laser beam. Be sure to invite such a person onto your board to keep you grounded and accountable.
  3. The youth of today. That’s right, I’m recommending you ask someone to mentor you WHO IS YOUNGER THAN YOU. Uncomfortable as that may sound, consulting a generation or two down can lead to searing insights about marketing effectively to young folks, leveraging technology and social media, and maintaining the “cool” factor. And because they aren’t jaded, their optimism may help dissipate some of your own self-doubt.
  4. Someone in your field, community or both. You want diversity in your board, but you also want people who know what you’re going through because they’ve gone through it themselves. Already. And have 20/20 hindsight.
  5. A connector. Know someone who knows everyone in town and loves nothing more than making mutually beneficial introductions? Get that person on your board. When your business is in launch phase, networking isn’t optional, it’s transformative.

Board of Directors ConnectAdditional roles to consider filling include strategist, motivator, hero (someone you aspire to be like), shoulder to cry on and big dreamer. You know best whom you’d like to consult in times of crisis.

How to run your board of directors

Nonprofit and corporate boards can be pretty regimented, but a personal board is typically more informal. That said, you should consider making the initial ask in person, and then recruiting members via a formal invitation — email or snail mail — so it’s clear you’re not doing this on a lark. Let them know that this board won’t be a massive time-suck, but that you’d like to be able to reach out on occasion with subject-specific questions and hope to convene meetings when you need expert input on big issues.

Aim to schedule full board meetings every quarter, but consider virtual meetings as an alternative to gathering in person.

 

Google Hangouts and WeChat make it easy to assemble folks across time zones, and offering this option relieves some of the stress associated with recurring appointments. Between meetings, keep a running list of questions and issues for the board. Reach out to individuals as needed, and reserve the remaining topics for the large group.

Make sure board members feel appreciated

So you’ve asked a bunch of respected peers to give you free advice on a regular basis. What now? Whatever you do, don’t take them for granted or you’ll be torching bridges left and right. People are unlikely to agree to sit on your board if they just plain hate giving advice, but you still need to show your gratitude. Consistently.

Saying “thank you” and offering up the occasional bottle of wine is a great place to start. But dig a little deeper. Don’t just thank them flatly for everything. When they’ve helped with a problem or question, tell them exactly why you’re grateful for their specific expertise and insight. And don’t just buy whatever wine’s on sale. Ask friends and family about their favorite drinks, flowers or treats when you decide to send a gift.

Another must? Offering your own support and expertise to your board members in kind. If you run a restaurant, host their birthday or holiday parties at a deep discount. If you own a pet grooming business, keep their pooches in spotless shape. If you install high-end home theaters, promise to troubleshoot their audiovisual issues whenever you can.

Beyond these gestures, make certain that every full board meeting begins with a recap of how their input shaped your business.

You don’t just want these people to feel appreciated, you want them to feel like they’re making a difference.

 

And filling them in on decisions and changes you made based on their advice is the absolute best way to do that.

Launching a new business and nurturing it through the first few phases of growth can be nerve-wracking and overwhelming. That’s why it’s so important to assemble and rely on a personal board of directors. It’ll give you instant access to expertise, objectivity, ideas, resources and the support of smart people who can’t wait to watch you succeed.


Also published on Medium.

Image by: moriza via Visualhunt / CC BY

Sally McGraw
Sally McGraw is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, editor, and blogger. She is the creator the popular daily blog Already Pretty, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Huffington Post contributor, and the author of several books about style and body image. Sally is also a ghostwriter and editor who specializes in non-fiction books and book proposals. She believes that writing is like solving a living, breathing, ever-changing puzzle, and finds the challenge exhilarating. Her favorite word is "crepuscular."