by Sharon Florentine

Your personal advisory board: The secret to a great career

Nov 22, 2019
CareersIT Leadership

A personal advisory board can advise, counsel and champion you through all stages of your IT career. Hereu2019s how to create your own.

group of executives collaborate board room board mentor advisory board colleagues networking by alp
Credit: AlphaSpirit / Getty Images

For all the talk of needing a mentor, what might benefit your career most as an IT leader is a personal “advisory board,” says Teena Piccione, global CIO and executive vice president at RTI International. A personal advisory board is a group of five or six professional connections who can advise, counsel and champion you through your professional career, rather than a single person in the case of a mentorship.

“The IT industry has changed and has become more solutions-focused with greater emphasis on people and relationships,” Piccione says. “It’s really gone ‘back to basics’ and if tech companies are trying to find new talent, especially at the executive level, it’s less about the bottom line, money, the numbers and more about the relationships that are built; finding people who are the best value, who have a known ‘brand.’”

Whether you like it or not, you’ll have a reputation in the world of work, Piccione says, so it’s important to make sure it’s a good one and that you have people willing to sing your praises and help you forge new connections and networks, she says. While mentorship and sponsorship remain important, your advisory board can serve the same purposes without the stress or pressure of a formal, structured, multi-hour commitment.

“Many people will turn down a mentorship role, because they feel like it takes time,” Piccione says. “Time that they may not have. But if you ask someone if they could give you a couple minutes here or there; if they could respond to a text or quick email or call on the way to work. It’s the relaxed, informal relationship that can fit into their schedule — most people will not turn that down. That’s another benefit of these ‘advisory board’ roles — they’re quick.”

What makes a strong personal advisory board

The ideal number for your advisory board is five or six people, Piccione says. At that number, you can get enough varied perspectives to provide you with options to consider, but not too much input, which could be overwhelming and leave you paralyzed with indecision. Your board should be as diverse as possible to ensure you are getting the most well-rounded advice and perspective possible, she says. That means recruiting folks from a range of industries and including different races, genders, and ages on your board.

“I have six people on my board who I can text or call at any moment,” Piccione says. “Half are men, half are women and they’re all from different industries. Five is the least amount of people I’d suggest. Below that number and you start to lose the benefit of varied perspectives. And also, having an odd number helps so there’s never a tie if I’m asking for advice,” she says.

When should you start assembling your board?

You can start building your board at any time in your career, Piccione says. It’s as beneficial right out of college as it is when you’re making moves to an executive position or within the C-suite.

“Right out of college, you have a degree that you’ve focused on, a career that you’ve planned for, studied for. But if you have a board, they can point you in different directions based on your strengths — you could find yourself in a career or a role that you hadn’t even thought of,” she says.

Such a relationship changed the course of Melissa Di Donato’s career. In a recent conversation with IDG Communications Editor in Chief Eric Knorr, Di Donato related how one offhand comment sent her career in an entirely different direction.

“The reason why I’m in technology is because [of something] my first real mentor said to me,” said Di Donato, who speaks five languages and was in the process of getting her master’s degree in Russian with the intent to become a spy. She lived in London, but was accepted to Columbia University in New York City. Instead, she decided on Washington, D.C., because of the proximity to government opportunities, she said.

She approached the dean of the business school at American University and asked for advice. “I got there and thought, ‘Oh, this is probably not the right move.’ So, I went to the dean of the business school at the time and asked ‘What do I do with Russian? What do I do with my language skills? Do I apply it to government or do I apply it to business? I’m not really sure,’ and he told me I ought to get in on this SAP thing. This was in 1995; and that little tiny snippet of ‘this SAP thing is kind of catching on’ led to me, 25 years later, spending my career around enterprise applications directly with SAP or as a developer,” she said. Di Donato is now the CEO of SUSE Linux, and is building a formal mentoring program within the company to help other women and aspiring technologists progress in their careers.

These relationships — whether an advisory board or a more formal, structured mentoring program — are also beneficial in today’s multigenerational workforce.

“We have five generations working together nowadays. But the benefits are apparent — the older generation is getting the younger generations’ perspectives, and vice versa. I have some younger interns on my board, and the first few times I called them to ask their advice, they were a bit stunned. But it also helps the younger people understand that their input matters and their perspective is just as valuable,” Piccione says.  

How to find and approach advisory board members

Finding your potential board members doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming; it’s a matter of leveraging the connections you already have and asking for introductions where you think they could be helpful, says Piccione.

“I seek out people in the high-tech industries and ask them if they’d consider being on my advisory board,” she says. “Sometimes people I know will make introductions; I’ll meet people through conferences, I’ll read articles and reach out to the people quoted or to the authors.”

Of course, deliberately targeting potential board members can be helpful, too, said Ming C. Lin, Elizabeth Stevinson Iribe chair of Computer Science at the University of Maryland College Park in a panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology in October.

“You have to deliberately target your networking practice and get to know who people are before you meet them. You can then leverage those opportunities to discuss and talk about their work; for instance, ‘I liked your white paper on X, Y, Z topic. But I had a question about A, B, C and wanted to chat with you about it,’” she said.

Networking at professional conferences, via social media and at community events is also a great way to make connections, said Jaime Moreno, senior manager of data-centric high-performance computing at IBM research, speaking on the same panel at Grace Hopper Celebration.

Having an elevator pitch you can give to potential board members can help make networking and communications easier.

“An elevator pitch should be a space-filling curve that varies depending on the person you’re speaking to, how much time you have, what stage you’re at in your career,” Moreno explained. “Practice it as much as possible, and take cues from successful colleagues, politicians, even comedians to see what they do well, where they struggle. You should also watch recordings of yourself to identify how you are or aren’t succeeding at what you’re trying to get across.”

Volunteering your time and professional skills can also help make connections with possible board members, Lin added, though the demands on your time can quickly become overwhelming, so use caution when taking this approach.

Honing your board

The exact makeup of an advisory board is going to be as individual as you are, so there’s no set-in-stone formula for the types of folks you should be looking for, says Piccione. For her, it helps to look for opposites.

“I need people who are my opposite — my personality is not for everyone, so I need people who can say, ‘Slow down, let’s make sure this is relevant.’ I need people who can be much more measured in their approach, and I also look for people who are smarter than I am,” she says. “And those who have first-hand experience with things I may or may not have gone through.”

For example, if she is looking for advice in dealing with security incidents or security breaches, an executive who’s been through that crisis can be an invaluable resource, Piccione says.

Keep in mind that the types of board members can and should change as your career progresses.

“Just as the board of directors at a company changes, there are times when you have to change who’s on your own personal board,” Piccione says. “Sometimes you have to throw out the whole board and start from scratch because something isn’t working.”

Di Donato uses the phrase, “a reason, a season or a lifetime.” If, for example, she’s looking for a short-term, spot-decision-making advice, that counts as a “reason,” as opposed to a mentor or sponsor who comes along with you for your tenure at one company.

“Some people stay with you for a long period of time, and some are only there for certain decisions and then they aren’t,” she says. “People are in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. If I need something short-term, I have people I can talk to for that reason. When I was at SAP for three years, I had people in my life for that ‘season.’ And then there are people who’ve been in my life for the entirety of the journey. You must constantly assess what you want to get from your relationships, your goals and objectives — sometimes people will meet those and sometimes they won’t, and that’s okay,” Di Donato says.

The advisory board approach is a much-needed update to the traditional mentorship and sponsorship relationships that have fueled careers in the past. They can provide guidance, support and encouragement on any IT career journey.