Convening your Personal Board of Directors: soliciting advice from the right people at the right time

Finding a table to sit down at and ask the right questions to the right people about life, business or spirituality is not an easy feat these days, yet we should keep trying. It’s the only thing that keeps us going forward.
#RADIUSFellow Theunis Snyman is looking to bring folks to the table to help answer big questions.
Theunis Snyman is a RADIUS fellow and maker who classifies himself as a “dumpster diver designer” who is always looking for new opportunities to expand his curiosity of the way things work. He is the co-founder of BASIC DESIGN and #Vancouver Trash Lab. They upcycle everything they get their hands on and help teach SFU Business students how to do it. He just finished designing and building Vancouver’s first #Zerowaste coffee shop, Lupii Cafe in Champlain Heights with Dr Lisa Papania, SFU business professor and new Social Venturist.
Asking for help or advice does not come to me naturally. I grew up in a context where there was very little access to advice. I had to navigate through life using my own judgement and mental resources, sometimes learning lessons the hard way, and the learning came from introspective reflection. To ask is to trust and to trust is to know that the person that you’re asking advice from has your best interest at heart and is solid in their objectivity. Asking helps when you’re unsure about your direction, but also when you’re on the right path and just need adjustments to help  identify the opportunities for learning. This process helps build us up as “travellers” of this world.
The RADIUS fellowship, an SFU Beedie School of Business initiative, has transformed partly the way I think but mostly the way I do through a series of personal development strategies and tools. The RADIUS Fellowship is a room full of radical doers, determined to change the world with grassroots areas of Social Innovation. Being able to check in every Monday night session with these folks has been a real experience.


At the RADIUS Fellows opening retreat, February 2015.

In one of these sessions together, Jennifer McRae and Sue Biely introduced the Fellowship to the concept of the “Personal Board of Directors” tool to help keep us on track to the next destination. This is an abstract concept, using language from a very structured institution. It’s a leadership tool to help you make informed decisions based on experience from folks you chose to assemble when faced with a challenge.
What is a Personal Board of Directors?
We all come to a major crossroads in our life, challenged with making a critical, sometimes life-changing decision. The conceptual idea of the “Personal Board of Directors” is the idea that you can present a problem to trusted advisors and then ‘lean in’ and listen. The data you garner from this convention should come from a broad range of experience and hopefully there is enough substance for you to formulate a plan to implement a possible solution to your problem.
This is not an opportunity to surrender your responsibility to think critically. This PBoD only serves to be a part of your strategy to solve a problem you’re struggling with. They provide an experiential perspective and you have to merge their perspectives into your context, because only you can know your full context and have to be honest about it. The act of convening a Personal Board of Directors could mean that you or I am evolving to the next level of problem solving and critical thinking. It means that I stopped, thought about my challenge, added in some really good advice, and then acted. This adds depth to my thought process by allowing me to step back and think about what I should do next before I jump trains or whether I should switch tracks. The “Elders” system in aboriginal cultures have been doing this for millennia and I believe we have often forgotten the utility of this wisdom in becoming great leaders.
How does it work?
To clarify, this tool is not the corporate structural “board” that Michael J Fox and Melanie Griffith in eighties movies made famous, but more of a reference to the concept. It is not a bunch of folks in suits sitting in a boardroom deliberating  over  piecharts of annual profits. It is, simply put, a bunch of folks that you have chosen to assist you in “workshopping” with you navigate a problem you are facing right now. This problem is specific and temporary. This is probably a one shot deal. One problem, one board and hopefully good data to choose from to work toward a solution. The premise of the Personal Board of Directors represents the capability of an impromptu convention of trusted advisers who you know or know of, who might be willing to hear about a situation in your life or organisation and offer a perspective.

Lupii Cafe - Theunis & Jesi

Theunis with partner and Basic Design co-founder Jesi Carson in the newly opened Lupii Cafe, Vancouver’s first zero-waste cafe.

How you assemble your PBoD is really up to you and what technology and analog method you choose . A google group hangout or skype meeting is completely adequate in direct feedback. You can use a well-written email to prompt your chosen group, outlining your problem and a request for participation, and then follow up with a skype meeting, return email, or even a long table dinner discussion at a central convening point, if physically possible.
How do you choose your Personal Board of Directors?
Well, you can start with your most trusted advisor, a parent, a sibling or old philosophy teacher. These folks could be inside a circle of trust, but also people that you think might have a unique perspective in a the field of your challenge, so identifying them carefully is very important. They may even have a completely opposite worldview than you do which could give you a very well rounded perspective. These are also potentially people that know you well enough to know your blind spots and to redirect you when they think you’re going down the wrong track.
I began to think of ways I could compose my own “Personal Board of Directors” and the possible strategies I could use to find appropriate “sets” of board members. I say sets, because I think you can have more than one PBoD, depending on the nature of the problem, be it professional or personal. The idea of having more than one board with different sets of advisory groups really resonated with me because of the agility in which I am then able to present my challenge.
How do you manage this Board of Directors?.

Theunis will RADIUS Fellow Zoya Jiwa, a few minutes after they'd first met at the first RADIUS Fellows event.

Theunis will RADIUS Fellow Zoya Jiwa, a few minutes after they’d first met at the first RADIUS Fellows event.

Your PBoD may be a one-time spontaneous gathering with a group convened for a specific reason that may never meet again, or become a powerful, ongoing steering committee in your life. It’s limitless because it’s not a formal structure at all. The Board can be comprised of close friends or admired colleagues or both and this gathering would be informed by the particular challenge you are seeking advice on.
I think that the beginning, a PBoD can be a very fragile space as relationships and fostering them is a very delicate dance. We are all busy and when asked for time to dedicate to someone’s else’s challenges need to be carefully stewarded so that you can use this forum again in the future. We all want to feel we’ve been useful and so do our mentors and coaches in life–if we abuse that privilege prematurely we might lose the future value of it. So be considerate in the ask.
Once your adjourn the meeting it would be your choice or responsibility to reflect back to your PBoD on the outcome of your implementation of advice garnered if it’s measurable. This of course is another opportunity for your Board to give feedback and advice to the outcome, which then becomes really valuable to you: you are entering into the prototyping realm with your advisers and only good can come from that! Testing and failing and trying again becomes so much easier at this point when you have this level of commitment from your board as they want to see you succeed as well.
Why would you want to be on someone’s “Personal Board of Directors” and how does it become a place where symbiosis occurs?

Deep in conversation during Vancouver Trash Lab

Deep in conversation during Vancouver Trash Lab.

Advisers see potential in outcome when they become part of that equation. Their interest in this relationship could be multilateral and an analogy might be of that of a child-parent relationship. We grow, we get advice from our parents, we take it or we don’t, we flourish or we do not. They’re proud, they are not. We give back, we do not. They receive, or they do not .As simple as that. They get what they put into it. It’s an educated gamble on what the outcome might be. Sometimes the outcome cannot be measured until much later, and this is where the impact of well implemented advice become apparent. When you can recognize the long game outcome. The benefit to my board could be as simple as finding value in others’ feedback to me or even collaboration and new networks they may not have had access to before. It’s all about the human connection and how far we go to find our perfect group of trusted advisors, friends and colleagues.
How do you “Spread the love” of the Personal Board of Directors?

Deep in thought at the Fellows retreat, with Jeff McGregor and Irina Molohovsky.

Deep in thought at the Fellows retreat, with Jeff McGregor and Irina Molohovsky.

“How do you capture the wisdom and value of this convening?” I think this question is an important opportunity for reflection while engaging in this process. Knowledge and wisdom is ultimately power and should be distributed evenly so we all can benefit from it. When I engaged my first PBoD, they helped me formulate this blog post from feedback across a variety of experience bases. It’s a small exercise on collaboration and mentor engagement. If I am diligent in collecting the data and documenting the implementation of my advice, creating an open forum might be a next step where these challenges can be viewed by others and how the outcomes affected the convener. This would be a next layer of this process and could be another platform of experiential learning. Learning from other’s challenges can be the most painless way to learn valuable lessons. What we do with these nuggets, of course is ultimately up to us. Engage thoughtfully and ask carefully.

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