How 2 Build a Personal Board of Advisors
Sarah Hodges, MBA’10, is the driving force behind extremely successful consumer and enterprise startups and, last year, entered the venture capital world as a partner at Pillar VC. Sarah recently stopped by the Blank Center to speak about the importance of having a personal board of advisors. For those who are unfamiliar, a personal board of advisors is comprised of people who are invested in you personally and not necessarily in your company. Regardless of whether you are the CEO, consider putting together a personal board to help you gain new perspectives. The people on your board will fit into the categories of mentors, sponsors, or coaches. Each position serves an important role and provides crucial support.
Mentors provide wisdom and guidance, and help you think long-term about your career. While these relationships take time to cultivate, mentors will be personally invested in your success and deliver tremendous value. They should have a perspective that you trust and life experience relevant to what you are doing. They are also a source of emotional support! As such, a mentor is likely a long-term engagement. Although one mentor can be difficult to come by, if you have the option to diversity and have two, Sarah encourages you do so.
Sponsors are people who currently exist in your life and are your biggest cheerleaders. They believe in you and connect you with people and opportunities that can further your development. These relationships may be long or short-term. Overall, sponsors are people who look out for ways to help you succeed in life.
Coaches are subject-matter experts. They have specific expertise on a skill you need, such as building a sales team or developing a website. Coaches may be consultants who do this for a living, so consider giving them advisor shares in your company if they will continue to add value. However, this is typically a short-term engagement because your needs will change as the company evolves. Sarah recommends circling back to them later if you are confronting a similar challenge down the line.
The first step is to find people to fill these roles. As you may have expected, this varies based on the position. For example, mentors require the most effort initially because you are trying to build a relationship with someone may have only spoken with once or twice before. Think about any peers, company board members, or former colleagues who may be a great fit. On the other hand, finding a sponsor is likely the simplest because they are already in your existing network.
The difficulty of finding a coach falls in between that of a mentor or a sponsor. They may come from your community of peers, board members, online, or within companies you admire. Sarah recommends embedding yourself into digital communities and starting a conversation with people who have experience with something you need. Or, if you know of another business within a similar industry that you aspire to emulate, reach out to the person in charge of strategy to learn more. As Sarah told the audience, “people are more accessible than you might think!”
The next step is making first contact with those who you want on your personal board. Sarah referenced Margaret Morford’s New York Times article, “How Not to Be a Networking Leech: Tips for Seeking Professional Advice.” The article emphasizes the importance of making the meeting’s time and location convenient for the person and buying them coffee or lunch so they feel that they are also benefiting from the conversation. Rather than saying you just want to “pick their brain,” go into the conversation prepared with questions so your limited time together is maximized. At the end of the meeting, ask what you can do for them. The overall takeaway of the article is that this person is taking time out of their day to help you, so be sure to express gratitude. It could lead to them joining your personal board of advisors!
Sarah also included general tips for developing these relationships. One is to make sure that you and the person are on the same page before you ask them to be on your board. Be upfront with what you need from them (i.e. “I am looking for a mentor”) and agree on expectations for what this would look like. In addition, work to understand the motivations of the people involved. While they certainly care about your development, try to determine why they are motivated by your relationship. Doing so will help you optimize your interactions by doing things that they appreciate (such as taking them to dinner and picking up the tab).
The session closed with a reminder that even when an entrepreneur appears to have been working on their own, they have likely been supported by a great behind-the-scenes team. Having a group of people to rely on and draw valuable insights from can make a great difference in your personal and professional success.
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