Jan 29, 2021
How to build your personal advisory board

How to build your personal advisory board

Tom Guthrie
Tom Guthrie
Co-founder of Propel
Emily Pik
Emily Pik
Co-founder of Propel
Tom Guthrie
Co-founder of Propel
Emily Pik
Co-founder of Propel

Advisory boards can be useful to companies, but isn’t creating an advisory board just for yourself just a little much?

Advisory boards can be useful to companies, but isn’t creating an advisory board just for yourself a little, well, much? 

Instead of thinking about it as a formal structure, it’s better to think about your advisory board as the proverbial angel on your shoulder, only a flock of them that you can actually call for help from time to time. 

The people on your advisory board can - and should - fulfill different purposes for you at different stages in your life and career, but broadly they can provide value in a few different ways.

Build your highest impact board

First, they can give you a different perspective. When you’re facing an important decision, sometimes it’s important to have an outside view of the situation to help you see the full picture. 

Second, they help you learn things. The best leaders I know are constantly hungry to learn new things. Having experts in the things you’re focusing on learning right now can supercharge your progress. 

Third, they can help you address your weaknesses. Let’s say you’re a great product person but know nothing about sales. Having an experienced sales leader on your advisory board can help you make the right decisions in an area you’re inexperienced in, while also helping you learn how to be better at sales in the long term (see #2). 

Fourth, they can amplify your strengths. If you’re pursuing an opportunity that’s right in your wheelhouse, why not give yourself an even better shot at success by surrounding yourself with other superstars in that area?

Finally, just having relationships is important. While the relationships with people on your advisory board will likely never be as central to your life as your relationships with your family and friends, having a group of people that are on your team can provide you the psychological safety you need to perform your best. 

If you’re looking to build your own personal advisory board, read on and scroll to the end for a template that you can use to get started.

Start open-minded

How do you decide who should actually be on your advisory board? Get out a piece of paper (or a spreadsheet), because this is where the rubber hits the road.

To start, you’ll need to clarify your personal and professional goals. Having a clear picture of the outcomes that you’re aiming for is essential to putting together the right team to get there. Make sure that you include a specific time frame during which you want to achieve each goal.

Next, you should list all the skills and relationships you think you’ll need to achieve each of those goals. Finally, you should list all the people that you know that fall under each of those categories - this is where you’ll start to put together your advisory board. None of these things need to be static - you can, and should, update them over time.

Jane Dong, Co-founder & COO at Frankly Apparel still works with some she’s known since her first year in the professional world.

“There might be different people for different seasons in your career, and there are also people who are there regardless of where you are. I think of one of my GMs at Uber, who gave me guidance at 23, and she’s also now an investor with Frankly and still gives me advice today.”

Keren Baruch, a Principal PM at LinkedIn, is well-versed in searching for and providing mentorship.

“When pursuing mentors, find people who share the same vision of the world they want to create, and who see how you are a key to unlocking that vision as a team. Becoming a team with your mentor or advisor is the difference between getting some quick generic advice, and working together on the project of your future as part of a larger strategy for your industry.”

Do the outreach

The list that you put together in the previous step should give you a good place to start. If you have gaps, search your LinkedIn second degree connections as well as putting together your dream list of advisors. If you’re part of Propel, you can check out our roster of advisors and other members for folks that you might want to get to know.

Though it may be your first instinct, don’t necessarily optimize for seniority - a combination of people more senior than you, peers, and people less senior than you is often the best mix. If you still have gaps, ask the closest nodes in your network for people who fall under those categories.

Next, figure out what value you can provide to the people on your advisory board. Is it a different perspective? Access to a differentiated pool of talent? Great jokes? It shouldn’t be a one-way relationship. 

Jane Dong looks for people who have similar lived experiences.

“As a woman and minority, it's always amazing to have a few people on your personal board who have been in your shoes before. Though the times they navigated issues may have been different, how they thought about decisions and their reactions are still applicable. If you can, find someone who understands you.” 

Sandro Roco, Founder & CEO of Sanzo, adds,

“My biggest initial factors in selecting mentors are empathy and excellent experience. Has this person sat in my seat before? Do we have similar lived experiences or can they at least empathize with mine? And do they have a reputation for not just being a good business person, but also a respect for others they've had dealings with, e.g. co-founders, suppliers, employees?”

Finally, start to reach out. You (probably) shouldn’t ask folks formally to be on your advisory board - they’re likely to look at you funny - rather, just start to build a relationship with them.

An example email could look something like this: 

Hi Kate, 

It's been a little while since we chatted - I hope you're doing well. [Insert relevant personal/professional details]. It'd be great to catch up for a virtual coffee soon. I'd love to update you on what I'm working on and hear about what you're up to!

What times would work for you in the next couple of weeks?

How is an advisor likely to view this relationship? Keren Baruch’s opinion is that, “After listening carefully, your core job is to uplift and expand. Every time you speak as an advisor you are reinforcing some concept, usually something that is way bigger than you and that 30 minutes. It can be a limiting thought that your mentee came into the conversation with, their perception of people like you, or their idea of what is possible with their time and career. If you can listen for these core vibrations consistently, you will unlock how to help people leave every conversation with you feeling lifted and running.”

Remember that it's a mutual relationship

This part isn’t rocket science. For some advisors, it might be possible to set up a recurring meeting 4-8 weeks. For others, one-off calls, emails, or texts might be the best way to interact. Overall, focus on building the relationship over time. And ask what makes the most sense for them and how to best reach them.

Keren Baruch comments here:

“The biggest mistake people make is that they feel that they are imposing on their mentor’s time. This is the wrong way to look at it. As someone who has been actively mentoring and advising for many years, what I tell my advisees is that I’m the lucky one, to be able to help them in the early stages of their career, where a quick text or a five minute call in a time of crisis might be instrumental to their path.”

Refresh your board as you grow

Like company board members, most of your personal advisory board members shouldn’t be there forever. Your needs, interests, and network will change over time, and you shouldn’t be afraid of deprioritizing some professional relationships as they become less useful. 

In fact, it will probably be helpful for you to set up a regular cadence  - every 3-6 months, perhaps - to reassess what skills and relationships you’ll need and refresh your advisory board accordingly. This doesn’t, however, mean that you need to completely jettison your previous relationships - just understand that you won’t be leaning on them as much.

Sandro Roco shares how he's intentional about evaluating his growth opportunities to seek out mentors:

“Left to my own devices, I can be sometimes overly analytical and try to thread too tight of a needle on things like budgeting, operations and scale. 

But entrepreneurship I've learned requires taking some bigger swings, perhaps reaching for things before I feel truly ready. And my mentors/advisors are really good at pushing me out of my comfort zone.

Of course, it's my job as CEO to challenge their ideas and press them on how we execute, what kind of financing or operations we need to have in place, and how a proposed tactic affects our brand integrity.

But I've found that kind of constant dialogue gets buy-in from both mentor and mentee and pushes us to do good work.”

How Propel can help

The Propel community is full of people, both members and advisors, who could be part of your ideal personal advisory board. We are founders, executives, investors, lawyers, athletes, artists, and more than anything, builders. If you want to find the right advisors to help you reach your goals, apply today

Template for advisory board brainstorming

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