BY JENNY B
It’s the holiday season! And, there is only one gift better than cozy socks to guard against cold winter floors. The gift you give yourself: Build your Board of Directors. You can call it your squad, your home team, or your life compass. These are the people who will help you steer on large and important challenges. They guard against you having bad years…or decades. And, to do so, you will need to thoughtfully engage and provide them regular updates of some substance about you.
I like calling them my Board of Directors or Steering Committee. Those familiar with school Boards, Corporate America, or who have participated on the Boards of charitable organizations might find that gives you some familiar guidelines for engagement. I also like that it reminds me that these are folks who can ask me tough questions, and, while they often lift me up, I wouldn’t dare call my cheerleaders. Sometimes, the hold me accountable or call me on my BS. (Pardon my ‘French.’ I’m being a little more informal with you, here, but would be more mindful to step up my game and come across as peak professional with my Board.)
The stage of life I am in as a working parent with a young child, and all of 2020, have put a spin on things, this year. This is how I navigate building and engaging with a personal Board of Directors:
#1 Your Goals Determine Who Gets a 'Seat' at the Table
Picture it as if you are planning a dinner party or meeting of key stakeholders in your life. Six people is about the right number for having a conversation where everyone can participate. I wouldn’t have more than 12. Who do you need to have at that table, based on what your personal and professional goals are? From whom or with whom do you need to learn and calibrate? For me, in 2020, I have a mix of people from diverse ages and backgrounds whom I look to for parenting, professional, and ‘sisterhood/sanity’ guidance that mostly refers back to parenting or professional guidance.
#2 Set the Agenda
You will have to prioritize and manage the format. No one can get to a year’s worth of goals in the first hour. What is most important? What topics seem related or logically-grouped? When would you want to strategically tap someone on the shoulder to be the keynote ‘speaker’ or contributor on that topic? How will you set manageable smaller goals or milestones, and assess progress?
#3 Develop a Rhythm or Meeting Cadence
If you are having anxiety about this, by now. Take a breath and think of it more like you are setting the stage so you can dance to harmonious music, not have a mud wrestling match.
And, here’s the kicker –
Your Board members may never actually meet each other. I don’t actually recommend that you have a dinner party or one meeting with all the people you have in mind. It would be challenging and prone to group think and other group dynamics, to bring them all together in one meeting, especially if some small pockets or pairs know each other, but others know no one else in the group.
You have to be clear in your purpose and decision to meet with each of them or to engage in small groups of 2 or 3. Do you have 2 colleagues who you trust who currently work in the same organization as you? Great! Schedule or flex this discussion into your regular coffee walks or video chat breaks with them.
Is there someone you wish you could be mentored by, but you were never quite sure how to get started? Here’s your chance. You don’t have to explain the whole Board concept or structure to them. They may never even know who the other Boards members are. All that matters is that you are clear in making the ask of why you’d like to engage with them, how you think you both might benefit, and how you might do that. You could offer to work on something smaller you’ve seen on their plate, and let them know you can help take that off their plate, if they wouldn’t mind meeting with you for 30 minutes weekly to synch up on the topic and your larger interests in [‘x’, which can be ‘project management’, ‘becoming a team leader’, ‘becoming the School Board President’, ‘your child leaving the playground without kicking and screaming…’]. Finding a way of meeting/chatting with them that works well in the context of that relationship and is repeatable throughout the year is the key.
#4 There is no ‘Cap’ on Saying Thank You and Demonstrating Value
It’s year-end 2020 and everyone is exhausted. Say thank you as often as you can. Say thank you and that you admire them for [‘x’] when you ask if they want to meet or talk more regularly. Thank them when they do meet and listen to you. Say thank you, even if you are sure you already did, because they, too, were busy and might not have taken it in.
Again, if you go exuberantly to your colleagues, family, and friends and ask them if they want to be on your Board of Directors, you are probably going to make a lot of other people nervous. The ones who love and support you the most will say ‘yes’, even if they are tapped out. But, you will get some ‘No’s’ from others who worry about your expectations and that they cannot take on another commitment in this unusual year. So, I recommend being a little more suave, and ninja-like in 2020. Travel light to travel far.
Give yourself permission to give yourself the benefit of having a Board, and don’t feel the need to explain the full concept or ask anyone else’s permission to have it. Just make a start, and you can revise and revisit the concept until it serves you well. And, in your holiday cards next year, you can include more thank you’s to your Board members and let them know what an impact they have made on your life this past year.
You might even be able to introduce or connect them with another of your Board members who can help them on a topic or need of theirs. Remember, relationships are a 2-way street. You need give back in terms of listening, tools of the trade, interesting reads, and professional/community connections, when you can. This can be as easy as cross-pollinating among conversations you’ve had with different Board members, dropping helpful hints and interesting thoughts that you can say you recently heard and were helpful to you.
#5 Revisit the Structure, at least, Annually
Lastly, you can edit your approach at any time. I tend to think about mine most intentionally at this time of year, when I am writing holiday cards.
The connection with some Board members might not fully pan out, for reasons you can consider on your end or theirs. You might put renewed energy and emphasis into engaging with that Board member. Or, you might replace their ‘seat’ at your concept of a table with someone else who can offer the needed insight. Make sure you are challenging yourself to continue to include a diverse set of Board members that span across age, race, gender, ethnicity, career stage, and a rich pursuit of family and life passions. You are seeking balanced perspective, not an echo chamber to tell you how great you are no matter what you do. Or, that they love you when you are ticking all the items that are on their agendas and where they see your trajectory heading.
And, at the end of the day or year, your Board provides you input, continuity of progress against your goals, and valuable review; you are still the boss. You set the tone and make the landmark decisions. If you take a hard look at how you have been managing your Board, and decide that you need to invest dollars into [a personal trainer, therapist, or computer programming instructor] to achieve a specific goal and bring that particular expertise to the table, then make that call. Many of your Board members will engage with you and provide you the input you need ‘for free’ or in exchange for your listening ear and sharing of your time, network, and skills. But, if you need to pay dollars for particular expertise, then set the goals, budget, and agenda with that new Board member and you make that decision.
On a personal note, MaryBeth is actually the youngest person to have a seat on my Board of Directors, though I imagine she is just finding that out, now, reading this. While I had not told her in so many words, I could see how talented she is and took the opportunity to ‘stay in her orbit’ and engaged with her by contributing to this site. Sometimes, what matters most is that good people know who you are and how you are trying to grow. Sometimes, the beneficial structure of belonging to the local community garden means you will grow more fruit and fewer weeds than you would have on your own. Thank you, MaryBeth, for being a creator of opportunities and providing space for others to share and grow.
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