The business world is tough—especially if you want to rise through the ranks and put yourself on an executive path. If you’re ambitious and want to build a great career, it’s going to take hard work and lots of it.
The good news is that all that hard work should pay off over time. The better news? There’s something else you can do to make your career path easier to navigate, more successful, and even more enjoyable. That something is building your own career advisory board, and it’s a strategy I recommend to everyone, no matter what stage you’re at in your career.
A career advisory board is a group of people in your industry—both seasoned professionals and contacts just a few years ahead of you—who agree to act as mentors to you as you grow in your profession. It generally starts as something small and casual, with you reaching out as you need help dealing with an issue at work or a career decision. However, as you build your career, it has the potential to become something much larger and more formal (think the President’s Cabinet).
The benefit of having a “board” versus just one or two mentors is that you can draw from a diversified set of experiences and expertise. Say, for example, you’re deciding whether to gun for a promotion at your current company or take a management job with a competitor. What better way to navigate such a complicated decision than to have multiple perspectives on the best way to move forward?
Despite the obvious benefits, I’m amazed by how few people actually take the time to build an advisory board for themselves. If you’re sold on the concept, here are a few steps to get you started.
1. Mine Your Contacts
If you’ve already been in the workforce for a few years, chances are you already have some current or potential mentors that could fit the bill for your advisory board. You want your board to be somewhat diversified in terms of expertise and industry knowledge, so start by identifying candidates from your own network—old bosses, former colleagues, friends who are in a similar field—then figure out where the gaps are. This should help you narrow your focus when you go to identify new board members.
2. Network in a Targeted Way
Building the rest of your advisory board starts with building a broader network, which most people do in a happenstance way. They attend a cocktail party, collect a few business cards, and perhaps even connect on LinkedIn. And while they may amass a large quantity of new contacts, if the quality’s not there, it can translate to a lot of wasted time and effort.
Instead, try building your network with the end result in mind. Start by identifying people in your industry and function who you think could be potential mentors, then work backward to figure out how to meet them. An easy way to make inroads is to find a “common interest contact.” For example, if your target works at ABC Corp, try to find another person at ABC Corp who has something in common with you—perhaps you went to the same business school, served in the same branch of the military, or even play soccer in the same weekend league. Find that person (or multiple people) and reach out, explaining what you have in common and asking if they want to connect in order to expand both of your professional networks. Eventually, as that relationship grows, you can ask for an intro to your original target.
3. Make the Ask
Once you’ve connected with your potential mentors, you’ll want to officially ask them to be a part of your advisory board.
Exactly how you approach this will completely depend on the relationship you have with that person. For example, you might be explicit: “I’m building out my own personal advisory network, and I’d like to know if I can stay in touch with you a little more often.” Or you might keep it casual: “As I build my career, would it be okay if I bounced ideas off of you from time to time?”
If the mentor says yes, be ready to set expectations for future communications. The cadence and format, again, will depend on the mentor and his or her availability and preferences. For some board members, you may be able to set up a monthly coffee date or a quarterly Skype call. For others, you may just want to reach out from time to time when you have big issues or decisions on the horizon.
4. Set Realistic Goals
This process may sound straightforward enough, but if you’re extremely busy or introverted, it may seem nearly impossible to execute. But give yourself a break, because career advisory boards are not built overnight. Start by setting reasonable goals—say, meeting two people in your industry within the next three months—and go from there.
Even these small wins can bear fruit. First, you’ll continue to build your broader network, which is always a good thing. Eventually, you’ll land one mentor, and one is better than none. And over time, one mentor can turn into three, then perhaps even five or 10. But you have to start somewhere and give it continual effort.
Once your board starts to take shape, you can start to reap the rewards of having this strategy in place. Keep in touch with your board members on a regular basis, start documenting professional challenges you want to run by them, and keep track of how things go when you use their advice—they’ll appreciate hearing that their guidance has helped you. And above all, say thank you often and in many ways.
Yes, the business world is tough, but you don’t have to face it alone. Building a career advisory board isn’t an easy or fast process, but it’s worth the time and effort. And in the end, all the connections you’ve made along the way will give you the edge you need to rise to the top.