Control your career with a personal board of directors

A personal board of directors is a broader version of a mentorship with many people assisting your engineering career journey from a variety of viewpoints. See four ways to begin.

By Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D. August 16, 2019

Think back to the early days of your engineering-related career. Recall your period of training and education, when you were still learning the ins and outs of your profession. Whether that was three years or three decades ago, chances are you don’t do things exactly the same way anymore. Technological advances, software updates, and innovative heuristic strategies along with new processes all conspire to render “the way we do things” obsolete with astonishing regularity.

Of course, there is nothing astonishing about it. With new knowledge created daily, the state of the art is in constant flux. In an environment of rapid technological development, acquiring new skills is more than a matter of professional development. It is a matter of professional survival.

Professional development courses

We see this reality reflected in the changing demographics of our public universities. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, half of the Institute’s student population is comprised of adults taking professional development courses. Through programs like Georgia Tech Professional Education, professionals in fields such as cybersecurity, analytics, and electrical and computer engineering strive to remain relevant in their professions. They’ve adopted the attitude of a lifelong learner, and that may be the most valuable “skill” of all, learning to learn and seeking opportunities to do so.

Engineers and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals in particular can benefit from a lifelong learner mindset. That’s because dealing directly with technology means dealing with constant change. According to a report in ProPublica, more than 20,000 employees older than 40 have left IBM in the last six years. Why? IBM was investing in its cloud computing and mobile businesses, and older workers didn’t have the right skills. While many companies invest in retraining efforts, employees should not assume their company is looking after their professional development and long-term well-being. Does an employer know where you want to take your career?

According to 2019 data provided by Emsi, 28% of electrical engineers are 55 years old or older. Another 26% are between the ages of 45 and 54, which means over 50% of electrical engineers are older professionals who are not likely to be leaving the workforce soon. Or at least, not wishing to leave the workforce soon.

For example, employment for electrical engineers is projected to grow by 4% between 2018 and 2028. That is less than the national average of 9% quoted by Emsi. To stand out to potential employers, electrical engineers need to have expertise that other candidates don’t offer. The question becomes where to acquire that expertise. That is precisely where the idea of the “personal board of directors” comes into play.

Broader than mentoring

If you’ve never encountered the concept before, a personal board of directors is similar to a mentorship, but broader in its application. Your personal board is a group of people who can help navigate your career and education, offering a mix of experience, talent and diversity that one individual can’t match. If you want to survive in a shifting job market influenced by shifting career needs, it’s necessary to take control of your own professional destiny. An intelligent personal board of directors can help.

Four ways to begin

If you are ready to take that step, here are four practical considerations to begin started:

  1. Know your goal. Board membership should shift and change over time, just like your career goals. If you’re at an early stage of your career with your sights set on management, find someone who is at that level. If you’re not sure where you ought to go next, find someone who can help you figure that out. And if you don’t want to keep moving up, you at least need someone who ensures you stay current. Regardless, find board members who can help you take that next step.
  2. Keep it formal. A personal board of directors is more explicit than traditional networking. Don’t be afraid to seek out specific expertise, even if you’ve never met potential board members in person. It doesn’t matter whether they are on a different continent or the other side of the country. The only requirement is they have the skills and the knowledge base you need and are willing to share insights.
    3. Your board members’ benefits package. Why would anyone wish to serve on your personal board? Look at it like this: Each of us in our lives will be on someone’s else’s board. There is a very real sense of giving back. As for concrete benefits, you represent a potential source of talent to your board members. Board members also can become resources for one another. Connecting with other mentors and expanding personal networks is helpful at all stages of a career.
    4. Build a diverse board. Innovation happens when fields of knowledge intersect. Whether your personal board has three or twenty members, stocking your board with a wide range of disciplinary expertise allows you to explore new paths and new passions. For example, if you enjoy the policy aspects of your job, you may find your career pivoting toward policy work. You might go back and take policy-related education. With that new focus, your board of directors may acquire a city councilman in addition to engineers. By the same token, board members with legal and financial expertise are as relevant for a personal board of directors as they are for a traditional company board. Finally, you should consider at least one board member who can help you overcome self-doubt and provide the encouragement needed to take bold new steps. This person needs to know you are as a person and has seen you in day-to-day interactions. That might be within your community, your personal life, or any field outside your profession.

Above all, a personal board of directors should help you follow your passions over a lifetime —even when passions change. In this way, by following your passions, you ensure you never become irrelevant.

Embracing change in today’s world means developing the mindset of a lifelong learner.

As technological advancements continue to disrupt the way we live and work, sharpening our skills and building new capabilities is essential for career security. In addition to pursuing professional education to change-proof our careers, building a professional network of mentors or a “personal board of directors” is an important part of a long-term career strategy.

Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D., is the dean of Professional Education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and professor in the university’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

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Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D., is the dean of Professional Education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and professor in the university’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. As dean, Dr. Baker leads a multifaceted operation including the Global Learning Center, Georgia Tech-Savannah, the Language Institute, and Georgia Tech’s extensive professional education programs in STEM- and business-related subjects. Dr. Baker also oversees educational outreach programs and serves as the interface between Georgia Tech’s professional education activities and the industries, corporations, government agencies and professional societies that benefit from them. Dr. Baker currently serves as the Secretary General of the International Association of Continuing Engineering Education (IACEE) and is also the President of the University Professional Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). Dr. Baker graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1980 with a B.C.E. in Civil Engineering. He earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Civil Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in 1985 and 1989, respectively.

Author Bio: Nelson C. Baker, Ph.D., is the dean of Professional Education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and professor in the university’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.