Over the years I have developed a great network of contacts both in the UK and overseas through my various roles. Some of these people have become colleagues and some have also become friends. I can’t remember who it was who first used the phrase with me, but I was once encouraged to think of my closer colleagues and friends as my ‘personal virtual board’.
But what’s the point of a Board? And why would you want to give yourself more accountability through a personal board when there’s plenty of it in your current role anyway?!
Having sat on a number of company and charity boards I know the benefits of a well-functioning board of Directors or Trustees. When working as an effective team they bring huge value to an organisation through, amongst other things; developing and shaping effective strategy; positively influencing key external stakeholders; bringing constructive challenge to the Execs and ensuring the right safeguards and checks and balances are operating.
As a CEO and an Exec-Director I can’t say being held accountable by a board was always a pleasant experience, but it was definitely a valuable one! The diversity of personalities and experience was sometimes challenging to cope with when presenting a proposal on a major new initiative. Left to our own devices leaders will always think their ideas are the best ideas (that confidence is one of the things that marks you out as a leader in the first place!) But going through the process of questioning and debate was healthy and always resulted in a better outcome in the longer term. You soon learn the wisdom of scrutiny and challenge.
Of course despite the fact that the law requires Directors ‘to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole’, there will always be an element of their own personal agendas at the board table. My experience is that this is manageable provided you know that fundamentally they care about the organisation and its mission and can be transparent about any conflicts of interest.
The idea behind creating your own personal virtual board is to help develop and grow YOU just as a company board does that for an organisation. It’s a basically a tool to help you lead yourself better.
So who should be on your board? You’re looking for people with three key attributes
- They are trustworthy. These are people you’ve walked with for some time. They’ve proved their worth as friends and colleagues. They are not ‘shooting stars’; appearing dramatically on your horizon in a blaze of glory, but disappearing just as quickly. And they’re certainly not just Facebook ‘friends’ or LinkedIn ‘connections!
- They ‘bring something to the table’. These are people with expertise and experience. They have knowledge and wisdom you can draw on. Variety is important here. As you seek to grow in your leadership there will be many areas you need to develop in and a broad advice pool has certainly helped me over the years.
- They believe in you. These are people who are for you. You might not always agree with everything they say or suggest, but deep down you know they care and have a concern for your best interests. They tend to demonstrate this by being interested in you. So they like to ask you questions not just about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, but why you’re doing it as well. They bring some E.Q. not just I.Q. to your conversations.
The next question is how do you work with your personal virtual board? That’s down to you, but I suggest intentionally ensuring that you are talking with each person at least a couple of times during the year. It doesn’t have to be intensive, but it does need to be intentional. With some of them you’ll naturally have regular contact, maybe because they work in the same organisation or sector. Of my 7 or 8 virtual board members this is true for at least a couple of people.
When you do talk, remember that these are people you’ve chosen to make yourself accountable to. Give them the permission to ask and say anything. That includes things about you as well as your leadership and business work. Scary maybe, but that’s how you’ll get real value in your development! As a company board is concerned with the overall health, success and development of the organisation so you want your virtual board to be concerned with the same things in regard to you.
At times you’ll have specific questions/issues you want to discuss with them, which is fine. That’s when you’re drawing on their expertise. The times when you let them question you are when you’ll draw not just on their expertise, but on their wisdom as well.
Over time circumstances will change and you’ll find that the composition of your personal virtual board will gradually change. That’s OK. It’s actually healthy for good governance in the corporate world that board composition doesn’t stay fixed in stone forever. And the same is true for you personally.
Looking back at the criteria I gave you for the sort of virtual board members to look for, you may be thinking, “I don’t know many people who meet those criteria”? Even if you start with just two or three that’s fine. Don’t rush it, grow it as you grow your network and relationships. When a company starts up from scratch it builds its board slowly and carefully over time. Appointing a new company director is a big decision for any organisation and so it should be with your most trusted personal adviser.