Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors

In today’s complex business environment, one mentor is no longer sufficient. Executives and managers need an array of advisors, mentors and role models to provide critical information and support at defining moments.

Many studies have shown the importance of mentoring and coaching in supporting individuals’ career and personal growth. However, changes in the career landscape in recent years, including global mobility, an increasingly diverse workforce, shortened job tenures and the extensive use of technology, present managers with unprecedented complexity and uncertainty. The notion that one mentor can meet all of an individual’s developmental needs is often inconceivable.1 Instead, there are a number of network support roles beyond that of formal mentor. As individuals change roles, occupations, industries or organizations, or relocate to different countries, they need to build a “personal board of advisors” that fits their careers and their busy lives.

Just as corporations configure networks to deal with the variety of problems and opportunities faced by knowledge workers,2 individuals need to configure their networks based on their needs and the resource commitments involved in building such relationships.

Research on developmental networks has primarily focused on the content of career and psychosocial support3 and how protégés benefit from multiple developmental relationships.4 We extend this research to focus on three questions:

  1. How can personal board-of-advisor roles be differentiated into types of roles that can serve as a starting point for individuals to assess and configure their personal boards of advisors?
  2. What skills are necessary to identify potential personal advisory board members and to build this network to fit an individual’s developmental needs?
  3. What happens if there are gaps between one’s career and personal development needs and the support one gets from advisors?

In developing the framework for this article, we conducted three studies. (See “About the Research.”) First, we conducted in-depth interviews with 64 expatriates in China and Singapore about their developmental relationships. Second, we studied the induction speeches of people admitted into occupational and industry halls of fame for insights into the questions noted above. Our third study focused on a cross-industry sample of managers, executives and professionals and the relationships they had with their personal boards of advisors.


1. K.E. Kram and M.C. Higgins, “A New Mindset on Mentoring: Creating Developmental Networks at Work,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 22, 2008, Business Insight section, produced in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management Review, pp. R10-R11.

2. R. Cross, J. Liedtka and L. Weiss, “A Practical Guide to Social Networks,” Harvard Business Review 83, no. 3 (March 2005): 124-132; and R. Cross, T. Laseter, A. Parker and G. Velasquez, “Using Social Network Analysis to Improve Communities of Practice,” California Management Review 49, no. 1 (fall 2006): 32-60.

3. Career support includes: (1) career strategizing, (2) providing challenging work/skill-building assignments, (3) coaching, (4) job-related feedback, (5) information sharing, (6) job/career protection and preservation, and (7) freedom and opportunity for skill development. Psychosocial support includes: (1) acceptance and confirmation, (2) counseling, (3) emotional support, (4) friendship, (5) personal feedback, (6) role modeling, and (7) inspiration and motivation for action. See: R.D. Cotton, Y. Shen and R. Livne-Tarandach, “On Becoming Extraordinary: The Content and Structure of the Developmental Networks of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers,” Academy of Management Journal 54, no. 1 (February 2011): 15-46.

4. M.C. Higgins and K.E. Kram, “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective,” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2 (April 2001): 264-288.

5. M.C. Higgins, “The More, the Merrier? Multiple Developmental Relationships and Work Satisfaction,” Journal of Management Development 19, no. 4 (2000): 277-296; and D.A. Thomas and K.E. Kram, “Promoting Career-Enhancing Relationships: The Role of the Human Resource Professional,” in “Career Growth and Human Resource Strategies: The Role of the Human Resource Professional,” ed. M. London and E.M. Mone (Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books, 1988), 49-66.

6. Higgins and Kram, “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work.”

7. Higgins, “The More, the Merrier?”; and Thomas and Kram, “Promoting Career-Enhancing Relationships.”

8. Higgins, “The More, the Merrier?”

9. D.E. Gibson, “Role Models in Career Development: New Directions for Theory and Research,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 65, no. 1 (August 2004): 134-156.

10. R. Cross, S.P. Borgatti and A. Parker, “Making Invisible Work Visible: Using Social Network Analysis to Support Strategic Collaboration,” California Management Review 44, no. 2 (winter 2002): 25-46.

11. R. Cross, N. Nohria and A. Parker, “Six Myths About Informal Networks — and How to Overcome Them,” MIT Sloan Management Review 43, no. 3 (spring 2002): 67-75.

12. M.C. Higgins, “A Contingency Perspective on Developmental Networks,” in “Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation,” ed. J.E. Dutton and B.R. Ragins (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007), 207-224.

13. D. Goleman, “What Makes a Leader,” in “Contemporary Issues in Leadership,” 5th ed., ed. W.E. Rosenbach and R.L. Taylor (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2001), 7-8.

14. Kram and Higgins, “A New Mindset on Mentoring.”

15. D.J. Levinson, C.N. Darrow, E.B. Klein, M.H. Levinson and B. McKee, “The Seasons of a Man’s Life” (New York: Knopf, 1978); and D.T. Hall, “Careers In and Out of Organizations” (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2002).

16. D.E. Chandler, D.T. Hall and K.E. Kram, “A Developmental Network and Relational Savvy Approach to Talent Development: A Low-Cost Alternative,” Organizational Dynamics 39, no. 1 (January-March 2010): 48-56.

17. W.A. Kahn, “Meaningful Connections: Positive Relationships and Attachments at Work,” in Dutton and Ragins, eds., “Exploring Positive Relationships at Work” and R.M. O’Neill, “An Examination of Organizational Predictors of Mentoring Functions,” Journal of Managerial Issues 17, no. 4 (winter 2005): 439-460.

18. T. Adelman, “Black and Blue: Sandy Koufax, the Robinson Boys, and the World Series That Stunned America” (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2006), 2.

19. L. Wheeler and J. Baskin, “The Cincinnati Game” (Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer Press, 1988), 157.

20. H. Aguinis and E. O’Boyle, Jr., “Star Performers in Twenty-First Century Organizations,” Personnel Psychology 67, no. 2 (summer 2014): 313-350.

21. R. Cross and L. Prusak, “The People Who Make Organizations Go — or Stop,” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 6 (June 2002): 104-112; and D. Krackhardt and J.R. Hanson, “Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart,” Harvard Business Review 71, no. 4 (July 1993): 104-11.

22. D.M. Rousseau, V.T. Ho and J. Greenberg, “I-Deals: Idiosyncratic Terms in Employment Relationships,” Academy of Management Review 31, no. 4 (October 2006): 977-994.

23. W.M. Murphy and K.E. Kram, “Strategic Relationships at Work: Creating Your Circle of Mentors, Sponsors, and Peers for Success in Business and Life” (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014).

24. D.T. Hall, “Self-Awareness, Identity and Leader Development,” in “Leader Development for Transforming Organizations: Growing Leaders for Tomorrow,” ed. D.V. Day, S.J. Zaccaro and S.M. Halpin (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), 153-176.

25. H. Ibarra, “Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career” (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2003).

26. Among the available self-assessment tools are the Clifton StrengthsFinder, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Hogan Development Survey, the Learning Tactics Inventory and various 360 feedback inventories. See J.M. Fico, R. Brady and R. Hogan, “Identifying Potential Derailing Behaviours: Hogan Developmental Survey,” in “Psychometrics in Coaching: Using Psychological and Psychometric Tools for Development,” ed. J. Passmore (London: Kogan Page Ltd., 2008), 171-188; T. Rath, “StrengthsFinder 2.0” (New York: Gallup Press, 2007); and A.M. McCarthy and T.N. Garavan, “Developing Self-Awareness in the Managerial Career Development Process: The Value of 360-Degree Feedback and the MBTI,” Journal of European Industrial Training 23, no. 9 (1999): 437-445.

27. R.D. Cotton, “Success Network Report,” unpublished ms, 2011; and M.C. Higgins, “Developmental Network Questionnaire,” Harvard Business School case no. 404105 (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

28. J.E. Dutton and E.D. Heaphy, “The Power of High-Quality Connections,” in “Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline,” ed. K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton and R.E. Quinn (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003), 263-278.

29. R.S. Burt, “Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); P. Caligiuri and M. Lazarova, “A Model for the Influence of Social Interaction and Social Support on Female Expatriates’ Cross-Cultural Adjustment,” International Journal of Human Resource Management 13, no. 5 (August 2002): 761-772; M.S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6 (May 1973): 1360-1380; and M.S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited,” Sociological Theory 1 (1983): 201-233.

30. G.T. Chao, “Mentoring and Organizational Socialization: Networks for Work Adjustment,” in “The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research and Practice,” ed. B.R. Ragins and K.E. Kram (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2007), 189.

31. M.N. Davidson and E.H. James, “The Engines of Positive Relationships Across Differences: Conflict and Learning,” in Dutton and Ragins, eds., “Exploring Positive Relationships at Work,” 137-157; and S.C. De Janasz, S.E. Sullivan and V. Whiting, “Mentor Networks and Career Success: Lessons for Turbulent Times,” Academy of Management Executive 17, no. 4 (November 2003): 78-93.

32. Higgins, “A Contingency Perspective on Developmental Networks.”

33. S.G. Baugh and T.A. Scandura, “The Effects of Multiple Mentors on Protégé Attitudes Toward the Work Setting,” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality 14, no. 4 (December 1999): 503-521.

i. See S.L. Castro and T.A. Scandura, “An Empirical Evaluation of the Construct Validity of Two Multidimensional Mentoring Measures” (paper presented at the Southern Management Association meeting, San Antonio, Texas, November 2004); R.D. Cotton and Y. Shen, “The Company You Keep: The Relational Models and Support Expectations of Key Developer Relationships,” Career Development International 18, no. 4 (2013): 328-356; and T.A. Scandura, “Mentorship and Career Mobility: An Empirical Investigation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 13, no. 2 (1992): 169-174.

1 Comment On: Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors

  • mnulfateh | April 10, 2015

    Great article. There is no alternative to this. Having advisory board from diverse culture create a core competency in any organization. No one can define better then local representation. I think, the world local leadership can define the true business and fulfill the needs of people.

    Muhammad Naeem ul Fateh

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