‘Kitchen Cabinets’ – everyone has them – or can have them. I am not talking about the physical shelving structures to store dishes or food. I am referring to a circle of your closest personal and professional advisors. They can yield tremendous influence in our professional and personal lives.

The term was originally used by Andrew Jackson’s political opponents (negatively) to describe his collection of unofficial advisers following his break with John C. Calhoun in 1831 (Wikipedia). The term’s connotation has evolved positively over time.

Any professional, student or someone-in-between can benefit from being surrounded by people who offer input, comment on one’s character, help you make important decisions and facilitate your success. Choosing your own cabinet is a vital process, one that needs to be made thoughtfully. Here are a few recommended steps.

Step #1: Have a Purpose

This first step may seem obvious, but is a valuable foundational element. The more concrete and coherent your goal/purpose when establishing your ‘circle of peeps’, the better you can be sure you are recruiting valuable contributors. For example, take a young professional considering graduate school. The clearer that person is about their interests, the better the cabinet can do in offering more specific suggestions to meet those stated needs. A clear purpose helps inform the person in question who they need ‘at the table’, what to ask of them, and how to set expectations.

Step #2: Recruit Doubters

“I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.” – Samuel Goldwyn
Please, follow Samuel Goldwyn’s words. Recruit honest, blunt, loving people with your best interests in mind. Although ego-wise it may feel great to have your ideas validated, that approach just limits your growth. Don’t recruit your most antagonistic enemies; simply consider people who respect you and aren’t afraid to tell you like it is. What is the point of a cabinet filled with yes-men who agree with your every word? You’ll simply take the same actions you would have otherwise.

Step #3: Leverage the Network

Although this step comes from a business perspective, consider advisors who help you gain access to new connections and information. When identifying a potential candidate, ask yourself, “What additional knowledge and relationships does this person bring to the table”? If you don’t have an answer, is it is probably best to leave said person off your short-list of advisors.

Step #4: Keep it Intimate and Relevant

Quality is better than quantity. Four to six members maximizes effectiveness. Fewer is fine. Over 10 is too many to solicit and results in too many disparate ideas. It’s important that, as your goals/purposes change, you keep relevant folks around you and slowly phase out ones who can no longer help you achieve your purpose. You don’t want to ask advisors to step down. But, most mentors are people with plenty of other things to do with their time. One solution is to ask for an initial question or project to be resolved. Another is to have them join you for a set amount of time (one to two years).

Step #5: Recruit

Good news! You’ve now successfully launched an effective ‘kitchen cabinet’, at least in spirit, even if there isn’t anyone in it. What do you do now? Make a list of prospects and approach them. Who do you get? We suggest you start with two columns: 1) the folks who are closest to you now and to whom you have ready access and 2) the ‘reach’ group – the industry heavy hitters.

Group one will probably prove easy to get, are more likely to say yes, and may already know you. Start here if that is your network. My mom and dad have been part of my cabinet. The second group may be a bigger challenge. But you won’t know until you try. Draft a strong email, have someone make a warm intro, call, meet, etc. It is a bit like dating. If at first you don’t succeed, be polite and persistent. I have been pleasantly surprised at how giving and generous most people are in the face of reasonable requests from interesting people. It is flattering to be asked.

Step #6: Keep Timely Communication

Use your cabinet and the members, but not too much. First, set expectations. Did they indicate a level of activity that was reasonable on their part? Did you set a schedule or level of commitment (light)? Quarterly contact is reasonable, but probably no more. Monthly communication is possible if there is a hot item. Keep them on top of your headlines, stay creative in how you communicate, and get real-time feedback when needed.

Note that the cabinet does NOT have to meet as a group. It is up to you, and up to them – according to their schedules, styles, etc. Some might enjoy meeting each other. But, most importantly, it is about you.

Step #7: Appreciate Your Members

Show your advisors appreciation for their service. Imagine how you would feel if you were to selflessly advise someone (pro-bono). Let them know how important you are, thank them, and even surprise them with a modest gift at a reasonable juncture like a holiday or at the end of a goal. In addition to good manners, it makes them feel engaged, and possibly amused.

Assembling a ‘kitchen cabinet’ is an important process, not to be taken lightly. Following systematic and thoughtful steps, like those above, will increase the likelihood for success. There is no one single magic formula. Taking any action is better than none. Do it, enjoy and reap the benefits.

Drew Tulchin recently joined Third Sector Capital Partners (www.thirdsectorcap.org) as Senior Director, driving
innovation to a performance driven social sector with pay for success, sometimes known as social impact bonds. Previous, he was Managing Consultant of UpSpring (formerly Social Enterprise Associates), a registered ‘B Corporation’ with the mission of providing market driven solutions that solve real problems. Tulchin’s efforts have led clients to raise more than $100 million for triple bottom line efforts. He has an MBA from the University of Washington and BA, cum laude, from Washington University. Reach him at: dtulchin@thirdsectorcap.org.

Thanks to contribution and background research from Rafael Caballero Chapman, Analyst, UpSpring.

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