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6 tips for establishing a personal board of directors

Who are people who can provide you insight into your career field? Who are people who can help guide you through life?

Charles Small

These are just a few questions Charles Small has asked himself over the years in preparation for building what he calls “a personal board of directors.” As a men’s basketball student-athlete at Pittsburgh (2003-06), he began forming a board of directors who serve as mentors in different areas of his life.

These four to five evolving mentors have provided trusted judgment throughout his career. His board of directors ranges from former Pitt Interim Athletics Director Donna Sanft, who gave him his first internship in the compliance office, to his undergraduate professor Rob Ruck, who years later served on his dissertation committee.

Small, now senior associate athletic director for student services at Iowa State, offers tips on how student-athletes can form their own personal board of directors:

Clarify Yourself

Before you begin considering potential mentors, you need to have clarity about who you are, including your values, interests and strengths. As a student-athlete, you developed your identity in terms of athletics, but you also developed other aspects of your life, such as your academic life, career interests and relationships. “The first piece is having some clarification on what your values are and try to find people that have similar values you have,” Small says. “Having clarification of who you are, I think, leads toward what you want to do.”

Be Intentional

In order to build out your support network, you need to be intentional in identifying people, but you also need to be intentional in developing the actual relationship. When you reach out to potential mentors and ask for their time, you need to have a clear understanding what exactly you’re seeking from them. Are you asking them to share their career path, or are you asking them to hold you accountable for the next steps in terms of your own strategy? “Think about being transparent with people about what you’re looking for in a relationship, and that it’s a two-way street,” Small says.

Use Your Resources

Leverage the natural connections you have with people. Depending on the setting, think to yourself, “What do we have in common?” An easy one, Small says, is if you find someone who is a fellow alum at your alma mater. “I think a great resource is the alumni at your institution,” he says. “You automatically have that connection. That’s an automatic conversation starter.” Former student-athletes, especially those who played the same sport as you, are another great resource.


Once you form connections, be inquisitive about people’s career paths and life. “I think the easiest thing to do is ask someone, ‘Hey! Do you have 30 minutes for a phone call? I just want to hear your story,’” Small says. “People often are willing to share their story because it doesn’t take a lot of prep. People like talking about themselves. It’s kind of natural.”

When you’re speaking with a potential mentor, take notes. What helped them be successful? What are touch points you can talk about down the road? Maybe it’s sending them a handwritten note congratulating them on an award, an article written about them or filling them in about your conference championship.

Focus on Quality Over Quantity

Seek genuine relationships rather than building a long list of people with whom you “touched base” or met for coffee once. “I’d rather build a relationship and have that build over time with a couple people and have quality relationships … versus having all these people on LinkedIn, but it’s no substance,” Small says.

Give Yourself Time

Building meaningful relationships takes time. “That’s the hard part in our society — that a lot of times we want to do things instantaneously, we want it right away,” Small says. But the reality is, you can’t rush it. “To me, it’s really important to start that practice even when we’re in school. … It’s never too early to start building those relationships.”

About the Expert

Charles Small is the senior associate athletics director for student services at Iowa State. He earned all three of his degrees from Pittsburgh: a Bachelor of Arts in social work (2006), Master of Social Work (2007) and a Doctor of Education (2013). He was a three-year letter winner on the Pittsburgh basketball team (2003-06). Small oversees academic services, student-athlete engagement, sports medicine and Olympic sports strength and conditioning at Iowa State. He is in his first season as sports administrator for men’s basketball and wrestling. Small is a member of the department’s senior staff and is the school’s Deputy Title IX coordinator.