Who’s on your personal board of directors?

Image representing Mark Zuckerberg as depicted...
Image via CrunchBase

As Mark Zuckerberg awaited, hoodie-clad, today’s IPO of Facebook, The New York Times did an interesting dissection of the wise and powerful players who helped refine his thinking and strategy over the years, adding value to his vision and therefore adding value to today’s offering:

But Mr. Zuckerberg has also invested in a personal brain trust beyond Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. He cultivated as advisers such tech giants as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, as well as others as varied as Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape, and Donald E. Graham, the chairman and chief executive of the Washington Post Company.

One venture capitalist tells how, when he met Mr. Zuckerberg in 2005, the young man wanted more than the V.C.’s money. He wanted an introduction to Mr. Gates. (He eventually got one, on his own. Today, Mr. Gates regularly advises him on philanthropy and management issues.)

“What’s most interesting about Mark is how he developed himself as a leader,” says Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, who has known Mr. Zuckerberg for years. “Not only did he have an incredible vision for the industry, but he had an incredible vision for himself.”

Here’s a fun post on a similar idea by a young Australian businessman, Jimmy Florida:

To make life really interesting a friendship group would have at least one of everything including a doctor, global wanderer, nutritionist, entrepreneur, writer, stripper, drug dealer, dentist, restaurateur, stock broker, accountant, recruiter, masseuse, farmer, banker, bum,  blogger, athlete, celebrity, venture capitalist, monk, artist, politician, Chinese doctor, arms dealer, people smuggler, politician, and rock star  –  you get the idea. This mix would make for a hell of a dinner party and some great conversation!

Whatever you choose to call it — brain trust or friendship group or board of directors — everyone with a shred of ambition needs one. This can start as early as high school if you seek out and cultivate a few wise mentors.

No matter what you know or have studied formally, there’s always going to be a pile of stuff you don’t know, and may actually need to learn (let alone use or publicly discuss or present persuasively) within a few hours or days.

Then you need access people who know this stuff who will help you.

Unlike Florida, though, I don’t just turn to people I know socially. I’m completely fine paying people for their expertise and usually turn to those with excellent references from my posse; I write off their fees as a cost of running my business.

Until or unless you’ve amassed a ton of social capital, do whatever you need to get the smart advice you have to have.
In my 30+ years working as an author and journalist, here are some of those I’ve assembled:


I’ve been through seven. ‘Nuff said.


Useful for scaring the shit out of greedy lying publishers and others who’ve tried to stiff me out of fees they owed for work I completed under contract — and they reneged. It works. Also useful for reviewing the work of your agent(s.)

Speaking coach

I was about to go on the Diane Rehm radio show, with 2 million listeners — live for an hour, with call-ins. No pressure! I spent two hours the day before with a speaking coach. Helped a lot. Here’s the transcript of that show. Here’s my coach, Christine Clapp. A lively and lovely young woman, she works in D.C. but can work with anyone anywhere via Skype. She’s great.

Career coach

Whenever I or my husband feel like we’re hitting a wall, we give her a call.

Massage therapist


I’ve done a lot of public speaking, teaching and TV. I also live and work in New York, where appearance matters a great deal. A reliable and affordable hair salon (I have two) is a must.

Investment adviser

Personal shopper

When my newest book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” came out last April I was catapulted from home-in-sweats-world to being photographed for national media and being well-paid to speak at conferences and events all over the country. I needed a professional wardrobe, stat! I did something I’d never done before and it was wise indeed — I went to an upscale retailer, Neiman-Marcus, and threw myself (not literally) into the capable hands of the department manager. I felt fat, horrible, insecure. With calm, cool competence, he brought into the dressing room three dresses, two pairs of jeans and two sweaters. I bought everything! And when Marie Claire magazine asked me, with two days’ notice, to speak to their advertising staff — talk about fashionable women! — I felt completely confident and ready to rock.


Even New York dogs have therapists. If you can afford the help and need it, go! Nothing wastes more time and life energy than wallowing in misery and repeating self-destructive behavior patterns.



Book publishing PR experts

I have two dear friends who both work in publicity for major commercial houses. I’ve learned a lot from them that helps me position and sell my books.


Physical therapist

After four (!) orthopedic surgeries since January 2000: both knees, right shoulder and left hip replacement this past February, I know a lot about PT. I like and trust my PTs and they’ve taught me a great deal about my body. I even wrote about them in The New York Times. You can do a lot of good for an aging/weak/injured body before and after surgery. You can even prevent it.

Who’s on your “board”?

Who's Your Ethel?

Photo Exhibition in Brasilia, Brazil
Image by babasteve via Flickr

If you’re lucky, we all find someone — maybe several someones — just when you need them most. Wise, compassionate, no bullshit, they’ll listen to your woes just long enough to let you know they’ve heard, then offer some of the optimism, ideas, direction you so badly crave. They’re a hit of pure, fresh oxygen.

They’re probably not friends or neighbors or colleagues. Maybe a former teacher or a minister or rabbi you trust. Someone who’s been bruised enough to know how much that hurts, but who has successfully healed and gone on (and up) to better things, whether that’s work, marriage, friendship. They can see the silver lining when all you see is clouds. They know you and know what’s a crappy (or wonderful, unimagined – really? you think?) choice for you, no matter how sexy it looks or well-paid it is or how much your parents think you should do it or your husband or all your grad school friends.

They’re a lot easier to find when you’re 16 or 23 or maybe even 35, in and around others seeking, questioning, a little uncertain what happens next…not so much when you’re old enough to be someone’s parent or grand-parent. It’s not cool, certainly in New York City, to admit much, if any, professional doubt or fear. Then, your Ethel needs to be someone who also understands how much you trust them even asking for some of their time.

I spent an hour today, a miserably rainy day in Manhattan, with Ethel, and thank God. I hadn’t seen her in perhaps a decade, back when when I was an adult student at her school, recovering from a brief, miserable marriage and trying out a wholly new identity, a new career I might enter and wondered if it even held a place for me. I got mostly A’s there and was inordinately proud of them. I was studying interior design, a passion of mine. People laugh and scoff, but it demands some of the skills that work well in journalism — see a space, envision a finished room (see the world, imagine a book or a film or a story) — and I loved every minute of my classes there, small, supportive, so challenging we’d go home and cry with fright. Then we’d pull it off and grin with victory. I showed one of my lighting designs (a nearby cupola my inspiration, glimpsed from school’s second floor window) to a manufacturer who said he’d consider producing it. That was cool.

I didn’t go into the field then, but as journalism increasingly resembles the Titanic, I needed to talk to someone who could see past my resume and my fears about what else I might do next. We caught up with one another, brainstormed, and I took plenty of notes. Today I was anxiously awaiting the outcome of a crucial writing-related meeting, and feared the worst. She reassured me there were many other opportunities out there should this one not come to pass. I left calm, comforted, grateful.

The meeting produced the result I hoped for, which I’ll describe more when I can. It’s good. But what a blessing and a gift to know, and be able to turn to, this lovely woman who replied within an hour to my fearful, questing email after a decade’s silence.

Who’s your Ethel? What have they helped you conquer or face?