How Carris Reels’ CEO Uses His Personal Board of Directors

To get real value, you need to recruit people who will challenge you, get you out of your comfort zone and help you think differently.

Editor’s Note: After we published an article by Ram Charan on developing a personal board of directors, Chuck Smith, who helps run our Chief Executive Network, got into a conversation on the topic with Alberto Aguilar, the newly-minted president and CEO of Rutland, Vermont-based Carris Reels, a maker of spools for industrial wiring. Turns out Aguilar is a big believer in the concept. So we asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing his thoughts on how he developed his board—and how he puts it to work. His thoughts follow.

My personal board of directors started as a self-created need. I’d heard other people talking about it and I just liked the idea of having someone outside the company to freely bounce around ideas, thoughts and feelings off of. I now have two external ‘board members’ that are paid, two external non-paid, and two colleagues from within my company.

It started with hired coaches. These were recommended by my boss at the time, who identified areas of opportunity in me as I became one of the candidates for becoming president of the company. I was assigned three coaches: A behavioral coach, a sales coach and an operations coach.

I still have, for a fee, the first two. The third one I call every two months—he offered to talk to me for free. After that, I decided to ‘recruit’ two more external voices.

One came from a seminar I attended on leadership development for CEOs in ESOP companies (we’re an ESOP). I think I got pulled into his personality. He had attributes that I admired and wanted to develop in myself. He was very straight to the point. No drama, no assumptions, just the facts. He was brutally honest without being rude.

In spite of not being similar, we’ve learned to understand each other and get along well. This is exactly the self-created need I was talking about. Someone that will be honest without any self-interest other than the joy of helping someone.

My behavioral coach does a lot of that, too. He corners me—and doesn’t allow me to talk my way out of the corner. He pulls me in again and again and keeps punching. I feel challenged but come up with the answers myself at the end of each session. Many times, they are actions that I would usually not come up with on my own.

The second ‘recruit’ is a former employee with no remaining interest in the company. He worked for the final five years of his career with our firm. He’s a well-seasoned executive who worked with us ‘for fun’. He’s got a very analytical mind and helps me think things through—with the added benefit that he knows some of the players in the company without being too close with them.

Finally, I have two company colleagues who are also ‘members’ of my board, people I can bounce a few thoughts back and forth with, without going in too deep into the details. These two keep me true to the company values and share with me how some of my thoughts or actions are seen or perceived within the company.

When it comes to using this group in decision-making, I seldom speak to only one of them. I speak individually to two of them—at least—and try to find common ground between everyone’s input and my thoughts, and then make decisions.

A good example: Earlier in my career, there was a key project—I thought so, anyway—where I could see the economic payback, but just as importantly, I knew it would not only have a big impact on productivity but even more so on morale. Try as I might, however, I was not able to get the value of the outcome across to the rest of management.

After the project not being accepted, I discussed it with my personal BOD team and presented it to them the way I initially presented to management. They all told me the same thing: They just would not buy my idea.

That got me worried. I asked them for different approaches on how to present it and got a lot of input and criticism—from three different persons. I changed many things, starting with the presentation, right down to the order in which I was presenting the idea, and put a better story together. After giving it the right twist, the project was approved, brought the desired results and…it felt so good!

My best advice to anyone looking to develop a truly useful personal board of directors is this: If you end up ‘recruiting’ friendly, compatible people to your board, you’ll only hear what you already know. This won’t help you. To make a real difference, you need people who will challenge you, get you out of your comfort zone and help you think differently. That should be your goal.