A great best practice for all companies of ambition is to establish and hold regular meetings of a well-qualified and experienced Board of Strategic Advisors.
Let’s set aside for now some of the mechanisms of setting up a quality board (of which more can be read about here) and instead focus on some of the “Tough Love” feedback a board can offer executives on what they are doing right…
…and far more importantly what they are doing wrong and how to fix it.
1. That Often It is Better to Receive than to Give: While advisory board members, unlike a formal board, do not have liability nor fiduciary responsibility, their time and energy requirements to participate are significant.
And for most smaller companies, the financial incentives it can offer advisory board members are relatively little compared to the value of a board members’ time.
A good if imperfect analogy is that for many senior executives their involvement with a smaller company advisory board is almost a philanthropic endeavor - where they give of themselves without expectation of direct reward - financial or otherwise.
Correspondingly, the owners and managers of the small company must approach the sage advice and good energy offered by their advisory board fully in “receiving” mode.
For businesspeople of the mindset of always trading value for value and reciprocal obligation, this is hard. But only by clearing this space can the board’s counsel be best received.
And somewhat counter-intuitively, often only by management fully accepting the “gifts” of its advisors will the board member’s experience be richest.
2. Begin with the End in Mind: For companies beyond the startup phase, its operating executives are naturally pulled to the shorter-term challenges and realities - this quarter’s revenue and profits, this month’s sales, the challenges and angst of a difficult employee decision, etc.
In contrast, an advisory board discussion, by both its nature and by the kinds of folks attracted to serve on it, naturally pulls to the long view, to the big questions that all businesses should be regularly asking themselves but rarely do.
Or, as they say, the “Why” and the “Which.”
The Why questions are hopefully embodied in the Company’s mission and its values, and need the regular attention of strategic planning sessions like advisory board meetings to keep them from just existing in “hot air.”
The “Which” questions are in many ways the harder ones that an advisory board dynamic can help address.
You see, ambitious entrepreneurs and executives are naturally drawn to expanding their sense of their market opportunity, and correspondingly their list of product and service offerings.
This can lead to a diffusion of focus, of trying to be all things to all people.
A thoughtful advisory board will challenge management to more clearly define where they are aiming to be 1 year, 3 years hence and beyond, and from this vision where resources and attention should be focused today.
3. Speak Little, Listen Much: Managers and owners of emerging companies are often also the lead salespeople, the lead “evangelists” for their companies.
As a result, their default mode is to always be selling, always be pied-pipering their incredibly bright futures.
But there is often more insight to be gained from Negative Thinking, from grappling with all the things that can go wrong and are difficult / well-nigh impossible to overcome.
Even if, especially if, so doing is buzz-killing and / or depressing.
Why? Because it is often only in this low energy state that a certain kind of reflective creativity can flourish and completely new approaches to solving vexing problems can be discovered.
4. Brevity is Next to Godliness: Strategic planning sessions in a modern business context should be tightly scheduled to last not more than 2 hours. After this length of time, diminishing returns starts setting in fast.
A tight frame also requires all participants to come to the meeting prepared. And, in turn, that the meeting organizers select the right meeting homework and then plan and moderate the agenda with the proper balance of structure and free-flowing dialogue.
Doing all of the above requires work – a good guide is that for every hour of strategic meeting time there should be 5 hours of planning time by the meeting organizer and at least 2 hours of preparation time by each participant.
Conclusion: Given that the only way to increase the value of a business is to either a) increase its bottom line financials and/or b) to improve its strategic positioning and growth probability, creative planning sessions like advisory board meetings should be a FIRST priority of any responsible manager.
They are classic Eisenhowerian, “Non-Urgent and Extremely Important” activities.
Ignore them at your peril, and benefit from them in ways well beyond predictable expectation.