15 Tips for Creating a Successful Advisory Board
Chances are if you are in a role that needs to gather input from the marketplace you have needed to create or be involved in an advisory board. These groups can help you create product roadmaps, figure out what messages resonate, get buy-in on new product launches, vet your channel programs and 100 other things that will keep you from falling on your face when you roll your ideas out to the world at large.
But, creating and maintaining a successful and sustainable advisory board is a difficult undertaking. I’ve managed a number of them over the course of my career. I have also served as a member on others. Here’s a quick “brain dump” on some of the tips I have for creating and managing groups that work.
Keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler. If this is your first time creating and managing an advisory board, don’t over complicate it. For example creating an advisory board with twelve separate tasks forces and a 20-page rule book probably doesn’t make sense. You want to create a plan for your advisory board, of course, but a simpler plan will help you get off the ground faster. You can always make course corrections as you go. In fact, tweaking the advisory board plan as you get input from the members can help you get them to accept ownership of the board.
Have an objective and make sure it is clear to everyone. Even if you are organizing the advisory council you may not be the “consumer” of the information that you gather. For example, if you are in marketing and you have been asked to put together a customer advisory council, it’s important to establish what kinds of advice you are looking for from the council. Not settling this up-front means that sales will think the council is for one purpose, product development for another, and the executive team may have a completely different objective. It is a lose/lose/lose situation with marketing (and the council members) caught squarely in the middle.
Keep it small. Like all meetings, more than twelve people in the room and you are not going to be able to solve much. Discussions quickly become presentations to larger groups. Less vocal people stay quiet. It almost seems as though a mob mentality takes over in larger groups because the group is always in agreement with the most vocal members. Take a few of them aside at break and you’ll quickly discover there is a difference of opinion, but because they thought everyone else agreed, they didn’t speak up.
Think about time zones. If you want a global advisory board, it is possible but tough to do if you have members from the Americas, Europe, and Asia all on the same call. It may be advisable to have submeetings by region but then get together once or twice a year for a global meeting.
Assign a note taker. Every meeting needs someone taking notes. As the organizer, and probably the host, you have other tasks that will keep you occupied. Make sure you select a reliable colleague ahead of time that you know will do the job right. You will want to create your own report after the meeting, but these notes will be an invaluable reference—especially if you don’t get to that report right away.
Select the right members. You have to know why you are creating an advisory board. For example, if you want product feedback, you will want to be sure to select product specialists from your customer or reseller channel. This is not the same group of people you would select if you were looking for feedback on marketing programs. A “one size fits all” approach to advisory councils will only ensure the fit is a poor one.
Get the members involved in the nominations. If you are creating a partner/channel advisory council (PAC) chances are that you are working within a community that knows each other. Try selecting a few core members that you know you want on the PAC and then let them nominate other members. You’ll get to meet channel members that you may not have otherwise, and you’ll be less likely to be accused of loading up the PAC with only people whose opinion is the same as your own.
Require participation. If you have an advisory council made up of twelve members you can’t afford to have a member who only attends half of the meetings. Depending on the purpose of the council and how you selected the members, it may be fine for the member to send a colleague in his or her stead. At other times, such as when the membership is made up of owners of the businesses, only one person will do.
Make sure the participation rules are clearly understood, but cut them some slack. Everyone misses a meeting every now and then.
The best group I ever belonged to had a three-consecutive strikes and you are out rule. If a member didn’t show up for three meetings in a row, the other members would nominate a replacement. The company who ran the advisory council would then contact the errant member thanking them for their participation but, respectfully, letting them know they had been replaced.
Regular meetings are critical. Nothing kills an advisory board faster than not having a meeting for several months. Meetings can be via conference call or over the internet, but they should be regular.
Have at least one face-to-face meeting per year. For most organizations, monthly face-to-face meetings are not possible if their customers or channel are spread around the globe. However, you should try to hold at least one face-to-face meeting a year. As much as I would like to deny it, you just can’t make the same connections over the internet or phone that you can when you meet someone face-to-face.
Take advantage of events. Whenever the members of your task force are likely to be together, such as at a conference, take advantage of the opportunity to have a face-to-face get-together. This doesn’t count as your annual face-to-face meeting because, depending on the event, you may only be able to carve out an hour or two in everyone’s schedule. You need a couple of days of “together-time” to create close and lasting connections between members.
Have a printed agenda. Know what you are going to talk about in each of your meetings including the phone based meetings. It will be much easier to keep everyone on task. If you share the agenda ahead of time, it will give them a chance to frame their opinions ahead of time and improve the quality of the input you gather.
Make it fun. Be sure to include a bonding event in your schedule. This may be even more important than the meeting itself because the purpose of the face-to-face event is to establish the connections that will carry through the rest of the year. Renting a bowling alley is always fun – or is it just me that likes that? A golf scramble also works great. Make sure it is a scramble so you don’t discourage nongolfers from taking part in the outing. I’ve also been on some great dinner cruises at advisory council meetings.
Keep it balanced and two-way. Try to avoid anyone from dominating the advisory council. That includes the highly priced executive who likes to hear himself talk, the partner or customer who has the energy to sustain a two-day rant, the marketing communications person who is a walking press release, the genius who normally sits behind a computer screen all-day but suddenly discovers he’s a people person, and any number of other characters who can monopolize the conversation.
Take the executive aside, or have someone else whose career is not on the line speak to him or her. Have one of the technical specialists hold a private meeting with the “ranter” so you can get their personal issues solved while the rest of the advisory council works on the bigger picture. Don’t let the marketing communications team own the agenda. (Side note: I have been on PACs where marketing did a great job, so this is just for when you have a problem with marketing.) Send the genius back to his cubicle or let him be the one to work with the ranter. And, above all else, make sure you are inviting opinions from the entire group. If someone isn’t speaking up, ask them what they think.
Get professional help. Now and then, it can be educational to hire an outside expert to run your advisory council. Market research firms are a great choice, but there are other choices as well. I attended one meeting where the company hired a business professor from the Kellogg School of Management to run the group. The information she helped elicit from the group wasn’t typical but it was helpful, and the meetings were some of the best I ever attended. We were all able to learn about holding effective meetings just from watching her style.
Posted by Melissa Paulik