Why You Need an Executive Board

Why You Need an Executive Board

I have a text chain with two of my closest friends and it’s titled “Your Executive Board.” It started as a joke, but over time the concept of our personal executive board has become incredibly helpful. We ask each other business questions, we get feedback on new ideas, we try to do a yearly retreat, and in general it's just a good community boost that feels incredibly important, especially as someone who works for themselves.

Executive board, board of directors, executive committee, advisory board... in the business world each of these have slightly different roles and purposes. Some are more formal structures than others, but in general we know of these as existing in larger companies and corporations to help assist with overall strategic planning and decision-making.

An executive board often reviews and assesses work already completed, acknowledges milestones, helps to set objectives, and even comes up with new ideas or directions. In the business marketplace, we see these overarching groups and systems as essential. But what if we put the same concept to use as freelancers, small-business owners, and creative independents?

Friends or executive board or both?

We may already ask our friends and those around us for advice, but as we all know, asking for help is difficult. We also may not want to bother our friends with our work burdens (after all, it’s nice to have separation between work and personal life). Creating your own personal executive board means that not only are you asking for help, but you are creating a structure to ensure mutual support.

I am not advocating for taking a capitalist approach to your friendships. Our lives don’t have to be defined by work, and friendship requires a dedication to the deeper questions of what it means to be human and have connection. So the concept of a personal executive board is not about abusing your friends and getting them to weigh in on every single work quandary that you have. Instead, what I am advocating for is taking the love and support that a few good friends (or good acquaintances) provide and putting systems in place that make it not only easier for you to ask for help when you need it, but also create a system of trust and feedback that can help to guide you along as you navigate your personal professional path. It also sets up the expectation that you will be asking for support and shows that you trust the expertise of those involved.

As someone who has worked for themselves for the majority of their professional career, I have absolutely no experience with an executive board in a corporate environment. I do however have good experience with my personal executive/advisory board which has become an integral part of running my own business.

Why we need support

I ended up asking my friend Xochil Springer about her thoughts on professional support. She’s a member of my personal executive board and in her work-life she’s a Capacity Development Coordinator working with businesses in Oregon to help serve adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In her free time, Xochil also supports teens through leadership development. All to say: whenever I need help with rethinking what I am doing with work, or just need a pep talk or someone to help me think about a problem in a different perspective, she’s my go-to person.

When we work for ourselves, we can often have an “I can go it alone” strategy. I asked Xochil what she thought about what happens when we ask for help and intentionally invite others in to support us. “When you are accustomed to being self-reliant it can be difficult to see outside of that space. When you let yourself ask for help and accountability from others, you are giving yourself permission to grow,” Xochil said. “The value of a specific community of support gives your brain and body a break and (serves as) a reminder that others deeply care about your work and want you to succeed.”

The value of collaboration

Collaboration is an essential component of creativity because no one creates in a vacuum; we are constantly influenced by our surroundings, who we talk to, what we read, etc. Particularly if you work mostly on your own, you need people to brainstorm with and provide trusted feedback.

That means that you want different people with different skill sets and perspectives, and you also want to ensure that you’re not just surrounding yourself with “yes men.” You need people who aren’t afraid to hold a mirror up to you and to provide constructive criticism that helps you to better shape your overall work strategy. This can sometimes be hard, especially if you have friendships where you aren’t used to challenging each other. To help with that, start by creating a support structure that’s based off of a certain set of values that everyone agrees upon.

Creating a support structure

Think about what makes traditional executive boards work well, or consider the same decisions that CEOs of big companies need to make when thinking about building out their leadership structure. “Something that I value about our Executive Board is that we have a shared understanding of trust, values, respect, boundaries, and communication,” says Xochil. “We come from different professional backgrounds, so it has been beneficial to see goals through each others’ perspectives.”

Xochil outlines the essential components of our own executive board.

  • Trust: Will you keep me safe? Will you keep our conversations private? Will you catch me when I fail spectacularly?

  • Values: Why are you here? What stuff do we mutually believe in? What stuff do we not? Would it be ok if our name showed up in print next to each other?

  • Respect: Do you respect me? Do you respect my work?

  • Boundaries: Can I tell you what boundaries are important to me and their levels and can you do the same? Will you abide by them while also helping me grow?

  • Communication: Group texts? Emails? Zooms? Handwritten letters? Voice memos? Establish base communication and consistency.

The fun stuff

We aren’t enormous corporations, which means that we get to be more nimble and have more fun. Establish an annual retreat with your board. This is a time for brainstorming ideas and projects and challenging each other to think outside of the box. This is where having people from different professional backgrounds can be really fun, because you get to think creatively about how to help the other people on your executive board and in avenues that you’re not usually used to working in. Lastly, don’t forget about executive gifts. Who doesn’t want a piece of art, a sticker, or a notebook as a thank you for being part of your support system?

Invest in each other

In a more corporate setting a main concern would be financial output (corporate board members at large companies often make upwards of six figures). We’d be focused on things like costs, return on investment, growth, or profit margins. All that financial stuff is important for you as the business owner, but here on the board side of things, there are no stocks, no stakeholders. Instead, when it comes to your personal executive board, the main thing that you have a stake in is each other.

As a member of a personal executive board at the scales we are discussing, you aren’t there for financial gain or prestige. You are invested in a structure that is dedicated to supporting each other paving their own path forward. And maybe that is the most radical thing that we can do as artists and creative independents: define success on our own terms and help others do the same.

20 September 2022

Words by:Anna Brones


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