How and Why to Form Your Own Informal Board of Advisors—Now

We all experience it: finding ourselves at a professional fork in the road.

So it’s not surprising that one of the most common questions I get from clients and readers is: “What do I do when I hit the wall professionally?”

The single most powerful tool for pulling out of a career stall is forming your own informal advisory board.

I first discovered this secret as a rookie entrepreneur. 

I’d finished my thesis and Ph.D. in record time; I was both inspired to move forward with my career goals and scared about survival issues. I had a fire lit inside as well as under my butt;  my progress in these early career years was often slowed because of the compromises I had to make for the practical concerns of supporting myself and my son. I plugged away with my ambition target always on the horizon.

When I was 32 years old, my professional life finally took on some semblance of stability.  I had a coveted academic-track research position in San Francisco. Devin was about to enter grade school, which meant fewer childcare woes.  I’d finally gotten my license and was a bona fide psychologist. Even though I was struggling financially, there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Except that I found myself yearning to sunbathe in a different kind of light.

Inspired by a business article profiling what struck me as an intriguing up-and-coming field, I decided I wanted to start my own career consulting firm.  On the face of it, this made no sense. I was trained as a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuropsychological testing and forensic evaluations.  I hadn’t gone to business school and I had no real training in launching this venture.  And unlike today, at that time career and executive coaching were barely on the radar; this was a brand new, emerging specialty.

My psychologist colleagues said, “You’re crazy to do this.  It’s career suicide.”

But this was an ambition I yearned to fulfill.  I knew that I loved researching and thinking about what was going on in the business world.  I knew that I was smart, creative and tenacious.  I craved the independence, opportunity, and challenge of running my own professional organization. Pursuing my professional destiny felt as vital and organic as mothering Devin, maintaining my friendships, and other equally precious pursuits. I knew that I had something meaningful to contribute.


I’d been in business for a little over a year when I discovered a mentoring program for women in San Francisco. Once a month, for a year, I would travel into the city with my business plan, strategies, and a raftload of problems in hand, and be mentored by a board of advisors on everything from setting up my accounting and books, sales, marketing and public relations to the emotional highs and lows of being self-employed.

In these two-hour meetings I, along with three other protégées, discussed our business plans and all the related obstacles and challenges with a group of fifteen to twenty seasoned, powerful professional women. We received frank, direct, nuts-and-bolts business tactics and real-time feedback and advice from CEOs, attorneys, C.P.A.s, marketing gurus, bankers, and senior executives in sales, public relations and finance. 

Having my career aspirations ratified in the face of personal upheaval was profoundly transformative.

Listening to the experiences and varied perspectives of so many successful businesswomen left me feeling confident and unabashed about pursuing my own big ambitions.  It also taught me how to take hits, toughen up, and get back up. My board also showed me firsthand: how to avoid naive mistakes; how to recognize talent; how to work collaboratively; and how to ask for and make great use of expert advice.  

We all need periodic feedback. No one can expect to reach their goals in isolation.


Here’s How To Form YOUR Own Informal Board of Advisors—NOW

Your hand-picked board of advisors will mentor and help you identify fresh opportunities, reduce your anxiety, and avoid rookie mistakes.

Here’s how to make it happen:

1. Assemble first-round draft picks. Make a wish list of movers and shakers—people you know personally, or have heard about. Target people who are at the top of their game and whose accomplishments and reputation you admire. Make sure their values and ideals are in alignment with your own; you want mentors who will lift you up, inspire you, and challenge you to be your own rival.

2. Keep in mind that your advisors needn’t be in your same field. Your goal is to create a group offering diverse, complimentary areas of expertise, gold-standard career advice, and ambition brainstorming in as many areas as possible.

3. Don't be intimidated at the prospect of approaching the best and brightest. If someone turns you down, don't take it personally.

4. Start e-mailing and phoning by sundown today. Ask if they’d be willing to be an informal adviser, explaining what it entails.

5. Emphasize that you’ll always be respectful of their time. For example, you’ll contact them periodically with a brief e-mail or phone question, or drop by their office occasionally for a quick, mission-critical question. Or you'll have quarterly 20-minute Skype check ins with your team. Or you’ll meet with your board for coffee or cocktails every four months and you'll pick up the check.

6. Draft your one-page career or business objectives plan. Include specific ambitions, ideas, questions, goals, and obstacles. Write down detailed advice you need. E-mail to board members in advance of group or one-on-one meetings; give advisors time to brainstorm before speaking with you.

7. Focus on listening.  Ask only clarifying questions. Resist saying, "Yeah, but here’s why that idea won’t work for me..."  I call this the Yeah, But-Rebuttal, and it's a sure-fire way to turn off your team. Keep an open mind. Give yourself time to absorb new ideas.

8. Become a techie.  Record phone conferences (with advisors’ permission) or set up Skype sessions; don’t be afraid to pull out an audio or video recorder at live meetings.

9. Follow your advisors on social media. Here, they may offer tidbits of information and advice. Don’t be afraid to comment or respond via this venue.  

10. Share your wins and say thank you. Let your advisors know when you achieve a big goal or accomplishment. Old-fashioned, handwritten notes offer an elegant touch.


Star achievers and people who love their work use this secret weapon. Follow their lead and soon you’ll be back on track with clear ambition objectives and on the right road to making the contribution you were born to make.

Sincerely and ambitiously,

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More Like This: advisory board , Ambition , Career , Coaching , Money , Role Model , Women

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I am a business psychologist, researcher, author, executive coach, and career advisor. I lead workshops and lecture frequently on women’s need to embrace our ambition. I founded the Women’s Business Alliance, a motivational think tank for more than 2,500 women. For more details, see my about page.

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