Building Your Own Personal Advisory Board

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I’d recommend to anyone–no matter where they are in their career–that they find a diverse group of mentors and assemble a personal advisory board for themselves. This is especially important when you’re just starting out. You need people that are invested in your career and your success that aren’t your parents. But be prepared to work hard and give something back. Mentoring is a two way street.

When I was in college I found two mentors for myself. I really wasn’t looking for mentors; I was looking to meet people that could help me get a job. Instead, I discovered the value of mentoring, and I’ve had many more mentors throughout my career.

#IfIWere22 or could go back and do it again, I’d be more intentional about looking specifically for mentors, and I’d create a larger and more diverse board for myself. That’s what I recommend for you. Here’s why.

I was introduced to my first mentor, Tony, by my marketing professor. Tony was vice president of marketing at a technology company. We met for lunch to talk about a project I was working on. When he went to work for a new company, I helped him with a small database project. He took an interest in me, and my career, and suggested we continue to meet for lunch periodically.

After one such lunch, we were walking through the Old Saybrook train station in Connecticut and we bumped into Forest, a friend of Tony’s, and Tony introduced us.

Forest invited me to work on some computer projects with him, which I did on weekends during my last year of college. Forest was an entrepreneur and consultant. He had a huge house in suburban Connecticut and six or seven collector cars.

Tony and Forest were great mentors, and they were already very successful businessmen. I wanted to be like them, but the reality was that I wasn’t going to get there any time soon.

That led me to have a lot of frustration and unrealistic expectations. Tony and Forest were generous with their wisdom, but not very much of it could help me in the near term. I learned a lot about managing people and helping them grow, but at the time I had no one but myself to manage.

They were generous in sharing their experience, but a lot of it wasn’t relevant. For example, I was trying to figure out how to close my first deal. Forest had closed his first deal more than 20 years earlier, and so much had changed that none of his tactics applied any more.

I actually became a little disconnected from my own peer group, people who shared the kind of struggles and experiences I was having, and who could have provided another perspective and a different kind of support. In hindsight I can see I was doing very well in my career, but it never felt that way and I never celebrated my successes because all the time I was comparing myself to Tony and Forest.

Tony and Forest aren’t responsible for that. If I could do it over again, I’d still work with them, but I’d diversify and build relationships with four or five people.

It’s great to have a mentor who’s reached the heights you aspire to, but I suggest you also look for mentors maybe five and ten years ahead of you in their careers, people closer to the world you’re in now. Make sure your board has gender and ethnic diversity, so you can see things from different perspectives.

The first place to look is the schools you’ve gone to. The faculty is probably well connected to alumni in any number of fields.

Also look at your parents’ and your extended family’s networks to find people who are either working in a profession you’re interested in, or who know people who are who they might be willing to introduce you to.

There are also some great networking groups and professional associations. Get out there and go to some meetings and find the ones that are right for you.

As you’re meeting people and working with people, always look for ways that you can add value to the relationship. Mentoring is not the same thing as coaching; coaching is usually a paid engagement and more of a one-way street.

Mentors do what they do out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to share what they know, and they want to give back. They find being part of someone’s professional development rewarding in and of itself. Doing a project for them or with them as I did is a great way to learn and add value for them at the same time, but if you can’t do that be sure to share all the ways you’re learning and growing from your relationship.

Once you get established in your career, pay it forward by mentoring someone else. Keep in mind that even if you’ve only been in the workforce a couple of years, there’s always someone a few steps behind you that can benefit from your experience so far. In fact, your mentoring and guidance could be just what they need.

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