Your Personal Board of Directors

Effective sounding boards can save you from yourself.
by Todd Popham, Popham & Associates
Todd Popham

Your recent performance review with your new supervisor did not go well, and you disagree with her evaluation. Do you risk damaging a new relationship by pushing back? 

A new career opportunity looks like a perfect match for your skills, yet you worry if may be too good to be true. What are you missing?

Can I bounce an idea off you? Seeking good counsel is a strength, not a weakness. 

The Inner Circle
Individual judgment is effective when the stakes are low and your expertise is high. We are trained and expected to make these calls. When the decision has greater risk and impact, we can benefit from reaching out to people we trust to dialogue on the best way forward. So, who are these trusted advisors? 

Sounding boards are people with whom you discuss ideas. They believe in you and are honored to be in your inner circle. Similar to an organization, think of this sounding-board group as your personal board of directors. 

Notice the diversity of gender, occupation, life experience and expertise each of these individuals offer. Your board can offer both general and specific advice to meet your needs. They may or may not be aware of each other—they serve you. Who is on your personal board of directors? Who is missing?

Once the right people are in place, effective sounding-board individuals practice a coaching model: listen, ask and don’t tell. Advisors promote your self-discovery, not dependency, through open-ended questions and their experiences. This process builds your leadership perspective and ownership to execute.

Case in Point
During my professional career, I have been blessed with many trusted advisors. Last year a longtime confidante passed away, and following his funeral I reflected on his impact to my life. I listed 15 examples of John’s wisdom, including rescuing my career (several times) from office politics and challenging my thinking on key business decisions. More than once, John saved me from myself. 

But we were not always on the same page. Years ago, I was considering running for our local school board in New York. John’s advice was that the opportunity would build my leadership skills and public policy perspective, yet the public scrutiny could damage my career. I reflected, thanked him for his perspective and made the decision to be a candidate. 

My three years on the school board were one of my greatest leadership development experiences. John respected my willingness to take a calculated risk, and I recognized the need to own my decisions and avoid dependency on my advisors.

Three Considerations 
Here are three keys to selecting an effective personal board of directors:

  • Expertise. Choose your advisors to include a blend of individuals who share your expertise, as well as perspective, on where you need development. Consider including people with strong strategy, financial and human resources skillsets. 
  • Diversity. We often fall into the trap of relying on sounding boards that mirror our personal qualities (age, gender, ethnicity, point of view, etc.) While comfortable, this is not how we grow. Learning from individuals who are on a different path enables us to embrace new ideas and more effectively build relationships. 
  • Independence. Leaders excel when they are independent—not dependent. Beware of advice givers who are not great listeners—who believe their role is to tell you what to do. Resist the allure of cheerleaders who offer platitudes such as “I know you will do great” without providing constructive feedback. Both of these individuals are equally unhelpful. You need good listeners who tell the truth.

Wisdom is about give and take. When you engage others for their guidance, you should be asking yourself what you are doing to invest in those who need you. Who seeks you out when they are stuck? PM

Todd Popham is president and CEO of Popham & Associates, a coaching, consulting and leadership training firm. He is also a graduate school instructor and executive coach in the EMBA program at Bradley University.

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