From internal, executive, corporate, academic, international or your very own personal board of advisors, having external perspectives and advice at your fingertips can be an invaluable resource in any line of work.
My first experience in managing a board was in 2008 when I was hired to launch a new business school in Pakistan. For two years I worked closely with both an academic and corporate board to design and develop a strategic plan. Managing all of those personalities, differences of opinions, scheduling conflicts and delayed feedback was not my favorite part of the job. However, twelve years later my friendship with most of those advisors continues to this day. Many of whom I reached out to for advice or connections when launching Women in Business Education.
I have managed many kinds of boards after this experience. Most recently I managed all of the board reporting for an international business council, with senior executives and CEOs from major multinational companies (and only one woman out of 16 members). It was my most intimidating crowd of advisors yet. I was in charge of preparing the strategic plan, quarterly and annual reports for board approval. When they compliment your reports it is the best day of your life. When in the middle of a board meeting they discover a small typo in the appendix (the appendix!), then spend several minutes discussing it, you will spend many hours in the shower ruminating how that could have happened. (HOW?!)
Yet regardless of title, size, experience or background, I still found many similarities among advisory boards and what made them effective.
I’ve discovered these 6 ways I make the most out of advisory boards.
1. To get value from the group you need to make time for the individuals
I ran a wonderful meeting, promises were made, energy was built, expectations were laid out and then… nothing. Nada. Poof. I was ghosted. The problem is, in the heat of the moment those were great ideas, they were meaningful promises, the intention was there but life happens. Attention spans wain. Interest plummets. The return to their “real” job takes priority.
To have an effective advisory board, one-on-one communication has to happen. Follow up has to happen. And it has to happen consistently. Building relationships, mentoring and advising happens at the individual level. I have heard of these self-running boards, with strong engaged chairs, and they get everything you needed, without oversight… but in my opinion these rare unicorns are few and far between. If I don’t have time to give individual attention to an advisory board—then it’s too big. If I don’t have time to give individual attention to multiple boards, then I have too many. I want the advisory board member to pick up the phone when I call, and look forward to the call. Yes, there is value in a huge corporate board with lots of fancy titles on your website. But if I want a board finding solutions, finding opportunities, and actively investing in our work, then I have to put in the time. Creating an advisory board to save time, or reduce your workload, is a myth in my book. Regardless of how amazing your Chair is. Advisory boards can make an easy decision turn into an overly difficult complicated one. I wouldn’t start an advisory board to save me time, and definitely I wouldn’t start one if I’m not willing to give it time.
2. The strength is in the agenda, so delete half of it
Board members become board members to give their advice. To contribute. To bring their expertise, experience and insight.
So let them.
I try to manage my agenda with 20% presenting our information and 80% letting them talk. Yes, I’ve got loads to share, so much background to give, information and programs to update, but they didn’t come for that. They came to contribute. Make sure to give them time to do so. Review your presentation and cut out any slide that isn’t essential. Cut the agenda in half. The more people attending, the more time you need for each to contribute. I go into the meeting knowing exactly the minimum outcome that I need members to agree on. If you have more time, great! Keep those items in your back pocket to pull out at any time. Oh, and that great presentation you created for Zoom? Prepare for 20-40% of them to show up by phone. The more important they are, the more likely they are to be on a phone. (This may subtly shift with the move to so many online meetings, but I am betting there will still be a lot of callers who still have not figured out how to use mute).
3. The most powerful meetings, happen outside of the meeting
The breakfast before the meeting starts? That ten-minute break? The post happy hour? Those are the times when I ask the hard questions, receive the most honest answers and brainstorm creative solutions. I arrive early, leave late, take advantage of that individual time to draw out experience and ideas that somehow get missed in the group discussion. Look for the opportunities and take advantage of it. Squeeze every precious moment out of those short breaks. Now that we have moved to Zoom, invite those to come early for an informal meet and greet chat. Send a private chat if you need clarification during the meeting. Find ways to have your meeting outside the meeting. Many will express a different perspective 1:1, then they would in a large group. Yes, even the high level CEO may go along with “group think” if the entire group leans a particular way. (In one important meeting one advisor was sending me his opinions discretely via text from across the table!)
4. Addressing Language Barriers on International Boards
Most boards I have worked with have crossed cultures, contexts and countries. Of course, many books have been written on the topic of cross culture communication and we could spend days discussing the intricacies and complexities of managing diverse boards. However, the greatest conundrum I have experienced is when some advisors speak a different language and leave other advisors out of their conversation. Since as stated above, many important conversations happen in these side moments, it can throw cold water into the entire room when some individuals can’t participate. At the same time, it is very (very) difficult to stop those from communicating in a language that is most comfortable to them. Who knows, maybe they are talking about something mundane, like the weather? Or perhaps they are planning a great upset. It is a tricky balance.
I have discovered the desire to communicate in native languages occurs most often when those in the room disagree, which further divides the room into their “camps”. I try to establish the main mode of communication up front. Sometimes I attempt to mitigate through humor or a warm reminder, but it really is a case-by-case basis. It can quickly feel patronizing or rude to break up a friendly conversation among important board members. Unfortunately, I have witnessed two opposing groups form and disagreements happening in different languages. Sure wish I had those UN headphones on for translation! I give this considerable thought when creating seating charts and placing tent cards. Natural clicks will happen in large groups, it is just human nature. In most cases you want your board to connect and relate to each other, just not at the cost of isolating other members. Mitigate the best you can.
5. You are building a team, not a board
Don’t forget about the value, enjoyment and learning board members find with each other. Build opportunities so they don’t only feel connected to the institution or organization, but each other. Advisors are way more likely to show up if they see people they know and want to connect with. Find ways to enjoy being together, whether it is a short ice-breaker type of activity during introductions or an activity to experience together (attending a class, visiting a local tourist site, etc.). Going virtual means being creative to find those connections, maybe offer an online student music performance or a virtual tour of the campus, building or classroom?
6. Find their passion, give them ownership
Whether this is formally through a scope of work, KPI or committee, or informally, I always find one area that I can designate to each advisory member that they feel ownership of and that they also feel passionate about. When I can successfully find BOTH, then that is the sweet spot. Find ways for each member to lead and feel connected to one area of their expertise. Sometimes I have to get creative, but if they know their job, like their job, they will produce in their job. So I find them a job! Even if it is small. One advisor was super proud of his office, loved hosting events. So we hosted events there! He pretty much then agreed to any other mundane task we needed–because we had already met the sweet spot of passion and ownership. Who wants to work quietly and individually with staff on your financials? Who wants their name showered all over your social media and leading webinars? Use the 1:1 time that is so important I mentioned above, to figure out what that job is. If they have one job they enjoy, they are much more likely to do the other job that isn’t so enjoyable. It’s a win win.
Every advisory board is different, and so is every advisory board member, but these are a few ways I have found useful in managing all kinds of boards.
Have I left something off the list? Tell me about it. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your best ideas on getting the most out of an advisory board.
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Lisa Leander is an international development and management expert with eighteen years experience managing higher education initiatives in 22 different countries. In addition to leading WiBE, she currently is a Senior Advisor to the Global Business School Network where she previously spent a decade working to improve management and entrepreneurship education globally. During the day you might find her advising U.S. multinational companies navigating complex market opportunities in the Middle East, creating complex art creations with her two daughters or attempting to train a high energy german shepherd.