Creating your personal boardroom with Zella King

When Zella King had a meeting cancelled before Christmas she took the opportunity to, in her words, “eat my own dog food”. That is, she spent the time reassessing her own personal boardroom. The author of Who is in your Personal Boardroom? sent four emails to “people I had lost touch with that I considered to be in my personal boardroom." Two of the emails led to incredibly useful conversations and one led to the introduction of someone else who now has their own seat in her boardroom.

Zella is an executive fellow at Henley Business School. Between 2002 and 2012 she taught Human Resource Management and researched careers, innovation and networks, publishing in several top academic journals. She has a BA in social and political sciences from Cambridge and a PhD in Occupational Psychology from Birkbeck College. She also worked as a consultant for Accenture, and as a corporate finance executive for Schroders.

As well as being co-founder and director of Personal Boardroom, a leadership development business that helps executives build the network they need to succeed, she also works with Know Innovation, a consultancy that aims to accelerate innovation in science.

A tangled web

The magic began when Zella met her co-founder Amanda Scott a couple of years ago. “Amanda is a career coach and as the Irish economy slumped she had done a lot of work with employees on the consequences of not having a network,” Zella explains, “When the cuts come, they’re the ones who are not identified as really valuable”. The pair soon realised that nobody really wants to refer themselves to a service that’s going to show them how to get a better network: “We don’t like to feel we’re using people and it takes up time. Some people told us the concept of career networking made them feel physically dirty! So we wanted people to think about their network in a structured way and it’s as much about people you already know and how you activate them as it is about meeting new people.”

The Personal Boardroom concept gives you a language and a structure to think about your own networks, something essential for entrepreneurs.

The idea is a way to get people to shed the associations with networking and think about it in a structured way with new language. The concept was piloted with Hertz and Google and they developed the tools they used along the way. The result is a very visual report showing you where the gaps are and how to fill them.

Role with it

The theory is that there are 12 roles you need in your personal boardroom. These fall into three groups; one to do with power, one to do with information and one to do with your own development and insight and values. Zella says, “Power is a raw word but the reality is that organisations function with formal and informal power networks and this is just as relevant to entrepreneurs.”

The list includes some roles less often thought about, such as “customer voice”. This is someone you trust who will give you a perspective on how your product is perceived in markets you’re interested in. Another vital one is “navigator", someone who can tell you who you need to know. Others we often don’t think about are roles like the “unlocker”, who might be someone with formal power over budgets or hiring decisions. They may well be the person who writes the cheque. “Understanding these can be a very valuable piece of thinking,” says Zella.

The development roles are about you being the best you can be. So the “improver” gives you feedback and makes your thinking more effective and helps you see your blindspots. “They can be like the irritant,” laughs Zella. The “anchor” can be someone who calls you on your own values and makes sure you will be home at 6pm like you promised.

Using these tools can make it easier to ask for mentoring help as the boundaries are there already, the role you are asking someone to fill is clearly defined from the outset. Senior people don’t have much time so this makes it easier for them to know what they are getting into.

Zella King

Give and take

It’s crucial to note that these 12 roles lend themselves to offering help as well as asking. Zella says, “In our professional lives we worry about reciprocity: we can’t ask for something unless we offer something back. That sort of mentality is how we function as humans. To be able to let go of that is quite useful as it takes away some of the barriers to asking. I am suggesting we decouple that and be willing to ask and also offer, but not always to the same person.” This might be a case of helping someone else close to the person from whom you're seeking support.

As someone who's built their professional life around helping others to reach their career goals, I can't overestimate the importance of establishing these types of relationships in a targeted and intentional way. I think Zella's approach is especially useful for anyone who is not particularly confident or comfortable with the whole concept of networking; as it provides a well-defined structure for identifying the people you need in your support network, and it gives you an articulate and impressive story to tell when approaching them for help. In my experience, introducing this sort of structure can help to break down the whole "networking" challenge into a series of achievable steps.

Evaluate your Personal Boardroom

If you'd like to get a copy of Zella's book, it's available on Amazon at Who is in your Personal Boardroom, by Zella King and Amanda Scott

And if you're interested in analysing your own Personal Boardroom, then head on over to the Personal Boardroom website where Zella has generously offered to provide us all with access to their online evaluation program. Here you can complete the details of people who may be filling some or all of those key roles for you at the moment, and the website will provide you with a revealing report showing the strengths and the weaknesses in your current Personal Boardroom.

This is a fantastic (time-limited) offer, so I'd urge you to take advantage of it as soon as possible. I've done it and I'm already taking action to fill gaps I never realised were there, but which seem obvious now they've been highlighted to me.

To evaluate your Personal Boardroom, visit and use the registration code: careerfarm


Favourite books

"Give and Take: A revolutionary approach to success" by Adam Grant (W&N).

He has done a wonderful job of challenging our perceptions of what we look for in other people. Before I read the book I pruned a lot of my LinkedIn contacts as I didn’t think I needed them, until I realised that they might need to be in contact with me and I thought, ‘I am a taker!’ This book is not just a book it’s a social movement.”

The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organisations (Harvard Business Press) by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker

It really reveals the ways in which things get done and how it’s not how you imagine. People at the centre of informal social networks are very different from the ones you’d expect.

 Motivational quote

"Be an initiator of generosity" Holly Million

Productivity tool


A great way of collaborating over projects, keeping a record and assigning tasks to each other. It’s like a Facebook for project management and an incredibly effective way to collaborate. It’s also free for small projects.

Connect with Zella on Twitter at @zella_king

I really hope you enjoyed our interview with Zella, whether you just read it here or listened to the podcast. There's a lot more detail and description in the podcast, so if you're interested in learning more then I'd definitely recommend taking the time to listen and then getting your report from Zella's website. This is powerful stuff, whether you're an entrepreneur or looking to advance your career within an organisation. I feel incredibly lucky to have had Zella on the show, there's so much to learn and absorb here.

If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do share them with us on Twitter or Facebook – we’d love to hear from you!

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Thanks again to Zella for sharing her knowledge and insight with us.