Starting a Business? Reasons Why You May Need to Recruit an Advisory Board

Edna B. Shearer

Do you know everything? Do you know everyone? Do you have strengths and weaknesses? I assume that your answers to these three questions are “No, no, and well, yes,” given in the order of the questions, as posed. If you are contemplating starting a business, merrily bootstrapping your way to what you hope will be entrepreneurial success, perhaps you need to reconsider your own human limitations. You might want to strongly consider recruiting an advisory board.

Who should become a member of your advisory board?

That’s a tough one, and an easy one. The tough part is that you probably already have members of your advisory board, yet neither you, nor they, may be aware of their membership. Significant others, parents, friends, and other folks who are a part of your life all tend to give you advice–sometimes, whether you want it, or not. Are these people good advisory board members for your business? Maybe! Maybe not.

Let’s suppose we take the instance of a spouse or a significant other. It may cause a drain on your relationship to talk shop, too often. If your relationship begins to suffer because you cannot leave your work at work, and spend time on the personal part of your relationship, perhaps you should set some boundaries, and leave your struggle, pains, headaches, and gripes at work. If you are enjoying success: share it. If you work at home, leave all of those other negative things in your in-home office. Adopt a similar attitude as the insurance companies that suggest: “I don’t want to be a burden to my family.”

To the extent that you are able, you should leave the office burden behind and take adequate care of yourself, too, by-the-way. Turn the cell phone off, leave the laptop screen down, close the office door behind you on the way out, and clear your head from time-to-time.

Some personal relationships are strengthened by a great deal of togetherness. If that’s the way yours works, and you trust the “instincts,” acumen, and abilities of someone who is close to you (relative to guiding your business), then by all means, consider adding this person to your advisory board. You may want to have a clearly established set of protocols for ensuring that this arrangement works, however. While it’s not exactly the same thing, it should serve as a warning to anyone that it is not unusual for friendships and other close relationships to evolve into business partnerships, only to subsequently unravel.

In outlining the above, certain things should have become obvious: one needs to establish criteria for the selection and retention of advisory board members. In particular, on an individual basis, one should have skills, knowledge, and insights that will serve to strengthen you, the advisee. The relationship should yield objective advice, which you may or may not adopt, with no hard feelings on anybody’s part.

You should also adopt a holistic view about the composition of the entire board: there should be balance. I am particularly fond of mentioning that there is also a place for non-experts on a board. Some of the greatest insights of all come from individuals who innocently ask what the “experts” might consider naive questions. “Why, do you do it this way?” Every once in a while, that individual who doesn’t know any better may ask a question that stumps the experts, or causes them to produce a very poor answer in an era of rapid change, which we now face. That poor answer is usually along the lines of, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” (Baaawoooonk–game show loser. Wrong answer.)

Recruitment strategies that work.

Have you ever heard of the WIFM proposition? “What’s in-it for me?” That’s the question you should prepare to answer as you craft your message for prospective advisory members, and determine who those members might be. The question I would ask is this, “Who might benefit from being on my board, while assisting me?” Let’s take the example of a Web site or other marketing communications materials: It might be nice if you would provide some public acknowledgement to your advisory board member in your outbound messages, such that they generate visibility and benefit that individual’s own endeavors. Yes, it’s tit for tat. Be thoughtful of the other person’s needs and interests!

Don’t forget sharing. Remember that from kindergarten? You need to be prepared to give, as well as receive. Don’t ask people to be a member of your advisory board if you are too apathetic, or too busy to give a little of your time helping others yourself. Don’t be one-sided in your dealings with other people. Further, it doesn’t have to be the same little group of people. In other words, if you were kind enough to sit on a few boards and lend your skills and insights, the adage, “What goes around, comes around,” will likely apply to you. It may be a different group of individuals, besides the ones you got to know through the boards you sit on, who sit on your own advisory board. That’s o.k., just think of the expanded network that you will have.

Logistics of advisory boards

Don’t be a burden to your board. Too many meetings become very non-productive. Too much communication becomes an imposition. Keep advisory board obligations streamlined, simple, and convenient; meetings should be limited in frequency and duration, mutually beneficial, and enjoyable, while at the same time addressing the “nuts and bolts” of the advising tasks at hand. If you have the budget, you may wish to consider an annual meeting in a setting that’s enjoyable. If you cannot afford it, is it because you were so busy bootstrapping that you didn’t foresee the need for such a board or meetings? That’s called thinking small. Think bigger.

Staying connected, and competent

If you don’t provide for your, and your company’s, own nurturing and development, it probably isn’t going to occur at all. As a related aside, I find that many business plans often fail to address professional development and the entrepreneur’s need to stay tuned in and informed. If you haven’t factored in your own industry’s number one and number two annual conferences, some continuing education and seminars, some workshops, and plenty of books and periodicals, you’re cheating your business out of what should be one if its primary assets: your competence and connectedness as a leader.

Bottom line, you need to stay connected and informed to be effective. An advisory board is a great way to address many aspects of this requirement. You should supplement and offset your weaknesses and human limitations with the help of others, and be sure to reciprocate.

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