May 1, 2018

First 100 Days: The Critical Role a Personal BOD Plays

A lot has been written recently about having a personal Board of Directors (BOD). It's certainly true that having a group of trusted people you can turn to for counsel is never a bad idea.

But there are a few key times in everyone's career when a board of advisers can be the difference between success and failure. One of them is when you join a new company. 

What I want to do in this post is talk about the reasons advisers are so critical when you take a new job, some of which are not that obvious. I also want to make some recommendations for the composition of your group when taking a new job.

There are several reasons to assemble a group of advisers as you join a new company. The first is that in a new position you have a lot to learn: about the customer base...the technology underlying the offering...a regulatory environment that might be very different from what you have dealt with in the past, etc. Also, the culture, the norms, and the politics at your new company are bound to have nuances that you need to get smart about quickly. 

It is probably obvious that having people you know and trust to solicit for information and to bounce ideas off of can be essential in this period of rapid learning. But there are also some less than obvious reasons to have outside resources to turn to when you take a new job. 

As a new leader, it is common for the people around you to turn into “Yes Men." When you propose something new, many on your team are likely to say "Great idea!" whether they think it is or not. They are trying to please you and get on your good side.

Further, you might notice something about the rest...the ones who did not say "great idea": they didn't say anything at all. A common trap for new leaders is to confuse silence with agreement. In addition to wanting to please you, your team is also worried about their jobs. They don't know who you are, what is permissible and what is not, and they don't want to risk annoying you.

In both cases, you as the new leader are are getting precious little "disconfirming," sanity-check input. Getting a steady drip of confirmations is a sure fire way to waltz down the garden path to...the wrong answer. This is never good, but on big jobs where the stakes are high, it's can be hazardous for your career.

Getting a steady drip of confirmations is a sure fire way to waltz down the garden path to...the wrong answer.

This is a second reason why outside counsel is so valuable. You need some people you can turn to who are not afraid to tell you an idea of yours is just plain dumb or the ways you could modify it to make it work. You need it from the outside because that feedback is unlikely to come from your new team for awhile at least.

So what kind of advice network do you need to assemble? Four channels of advice/perspective are important to have on a new job. Three are listed here and one described in more detail below.

  • ŸTechnical/Functional…nuts and bolts knowledge, especially in areas of the new job you are not as strong in
  • ŸStrategic/Change Management…how you get from here to there both externally (marketplace, competition) and internally (influence, timing)
  • ŸPolitical…advice on how to handle complex organizational dynamics

ŸYour personal BOD needs to be made up of external people for sanity checks and internal people who can advise you on politics and communication. Technical and content knowledge outside your area of expertise can come from both sources.

A mix of advisors inside and outside your current company is essential, as is both senior and front line perspective. For example, people always think that if you have a BOD you need the likes of Sergey Brin or Elon Musk on it or it is not worth it. While experienced, senior leaders are important to have in your advice network, when you take a new job, not having people in your advisory group who are close to the work is a mistake. 

Information gets distorted as it moves out from the center. The people close to you are going to play back something very close to what you said. But as your message filters out to the organization, it gets distorted and interpreted in ways you did not intend. For example, you might decide you need to exhort the organization to do a better job of delivering for shareholders. Now senior people certainly will understand and be motivated by that since their comp is likely tied closely to shareholder metrics. But that message might not only not be motivating, it might actually backfire on you with, for example, front line people who deal with customers. So be sure your advisory group includes individual contributors in customer service, manufacturing, sales, and/or R&D who you can check in with to see how your message is resonating.

In addition to the three previously listed advice channels, there is a fourth one that is crucial to's the Personal channel. This is rarely talked about. You need some people around you who know your tendencies at work, know your professional weaknesses and your growing edge...people who care about you and who want you to win. These need to be people with whom you can let your hair down and share your deepest concerns.

But what you need from a good Personal adviser is not just a cheerleader. If they can't bring the tough love when necessary, they are no good for you. When you take a new job it is easy to fall back onto old habits. It is also easy to get sucked into 14 hour days and neglect close relationships and self-care items like sleep and exercise. It is also easy to lose your edge and "go native" and stop pushing for the changes that they hired you to make. Effective personal advisers need to be strong enough to hold up the mirror and point out the cliff you are headed towards.

But what you need from a good Personal adviser is not just a cheerleader. If they can't bring the tough love when necessary, they are no good for you. 

The last thing about having a circle of advisers...they are not possessions or decorations for the have to use them. This may sound obvious, but in new jobs people are so busy scrambling to get up to speed that they don't find the time to step back, reflect, and seek outside perspective. Before you start your new job, 1) reach out to people to ask them to help you and 2) book time on their calendar. Once the bullets start flying, you will have built in blocks of time to step back.

There is an often quoted bit of folk wisdom: "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I am assuming you hope this is a job you can be in and excited about for a long time. If so, find some people to help you avoid missteps and help you on your journey.

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