Career Advice

Five Heads Are Better Than One: The Role of a Personal Board of Directors

Melissa McCartney

Close your eyes and picture a board of directors. Most likely, you are imagining a conference table full of serious looking executives dressed in business suits and engaging in an intense conversation about protecting shareholders’ interests, establishing policies for management, and making decisions about important issues a company faces. Such a gathering probably seems like it would be out of place in your daily life and unlikely to ever convene in your lab.

However, you and your ambitions are just as much to be valued, respected, and esteemed as any company you picture in your mind. You, the main shareholder in your career, are equally worthy of a coordinated team to look out for your interests and advise you. Think of it as your own personal board of directors.

The Mission

Generally speaking, a board draws on its varied experience to oversee an organization’s activities. For you as a young scientist, the idea would be to gather a strategic group of mentors from different sectors and phases of your life and career. Think carefully about its members.

A poorly balanced group of advisers could do more harm than good. However, one composed of mentors with diverse perspectives, who are associated with different scientific disciplines and industries, and who are at varying levels in their careers, can work to support you through any professional challenges you may face. Their most important quality ought to be that they have previously mentored or collaborated with you in a positive way. Who among us couldn’t benefit from such help right now?

The Plan

The first step in assembling your personal set of advisers is establishing why you need one. How would you like to advance professionally? What do you want your career to look like in five years? What specific challenges might you face? Answers to these questions will provide the blueprint for your personal board of directors. It is critical at this stage to take enough time to be honest, thoughtful, and reflective about your short- and long-term career goals.

Once you understand what you aim to achieve through interactions with your board, you can move on to strategically inviting candidates to join. Remember, you are looking for mentors who will answer your questions and fill your knowledge gaps as they advise, guide, and assist you. Each person you choose should be able to provide a unique contribution.

The Right Balance

A board of directors typically has about five members, but there are no hard rules. Your career path isn’t likely to be linear; you will always be changing and adapting your list of advisers. Sometimes you will rely on certain members of the group more than others. In due course, you will need to “retire” some mentors and invite new ones. Here are a few types of people to consider including as you put your initial board of directors together:

  1. The expert. It never hurts to have an expert as a mentor. However, it can be challenging to identify the right one in the field you’re pursuing. Remember, you want a supportive adviser who can provide honest details about both present and future opportunities. The best candidate might not be the person with the flashiest resume; it might be someone flying under the radar. Look for individuals with collaborations across institutions, suggesting a strong network within the field, or those who publish in a variety of scientific journals, suggesting an understanding of the field from several points of view.
  2. The unbiased observer. The complete opposite of the expert, the unbiased observer provides a pair of fresh eyes to provide a new perspective on the field you are pursuing. Think about your connections outside of science. See if you can find someone who can provide valuable insight into strategies and policies used elsewhere, mentoring you from a different viewpoint. A fresh take now and then might be all you need to overcome a career obstacle.
  3. The networker. Networking is challenging for everyone, so why not include a master networker who can take some of the pressure off? Invite a mentor who loves to put people together, make introductions, and suggest collaborations, and you’ll find yourself with a new connection each time you ask for advice.
  4. The champion. Find someone to champion you. Include a mentor who will sing your praises when you are not around, someone who will always be on the lookout for awards and opportunities to nominate you for. Knowing you have a consistent advocate in your corner can take some of the anxiety out of navigating career transitions.
  5. The honesty broker. Sometimes you won’t want to listen to or follow the advice you need the most. Having a contrarian mentor may seem unorthodox, but someone willing to tell you the truth you don’t want to hear could ultimately prevent you from investing time and effort in an unproductive direction.
  6. The teacher. Don’t forget that career progression isn’t solely about receiving and following good advice. You also have to constantly learn new skills to prepare for and adapt to a job market that is always in flux. Think about someone you want to learn from, perhaps a scientist with a technical skill or a successful leader with interpersonal expertise. Develop a plan for including this individual and knowledge into your board of directors.
  7. The peer. Although mentors who have advanced in their careers can give sage advice, sometimes you just need some solidarity. Consider inviting a peer—someone navigating a similar career path—to share advice from the trenches of career development. This way, you ensure that you have someone who can empathize and be available to celebrate the highs and lows of career progression.
  8. The gambler. Being brave and bold does not come naturally to a lot of us. If this describes you, perhaps you can benefit from an adviser who will encourage you to embrace a certain amount of uncertainty. Remember that risk is subjective, and we will all have a different understanding and comfort level with the idea of applying it to our careers. Additionally, not all moves outside your comfort zone have to be dramatic and life changing; some might only be a small step in a different direction. Just make sure that your version of the gambler will be a mentor who knows how to challenge and motivate you to make courageous moves.

Future Interactions

Once you have established your board of directors, consult with them often! Although most people won’t ever convene the full group, this is an option. However, the most effective method will be taking time to actively engage with your mentors one-on-one, being honest about your career goals and challenges. Listen thoughtfully and reflect on their advice and feedback, especially when it may be difficult to hear.

Finally, remember that your personal board of directors works for free, meaning they are truly and selflessly invested in your success. This means that you should reciprocate whenever and however you can! Send regular updates on your progress and let your mentors know how their guidance helped you navigate your last career change. These actions will simultaneously build trust and lead to more invested mentors, because they will be able to quantify the positive impact they are having on your career successes. And don’t forget the ultimate thank you to all your mentors: When it is your turn to share advice with the next generation of scientists, remember to pay it forward.