Set Your Business Up for Success with an Advisory Board

Who do you ask for advice when you’ve got a question for your business? If you’re operating a smaller business or you’re a freelancer, you may go looking for advice differently each time you need it — not a particularly efficient approach.

Many companies (including those that you might consider to be small businesses) have a board of directors. So do non-profits. A board of directors is usually made up of a variety of experienced individuals with different backgrounds, who are either appointed or elected to oversee the actions of the organization. The organization sets the requirements expected of board members.

If you’re mostly operating on your own or with a small staff, a board of directors seems like overkill. You don’t need someone to approve your budget if you’re not sure where the money will be coming from next month. But the advice that a board can offer is invaluable, especially when you consider that most boards are made up of experienced individuals, many of whom may be experts in their own fields.

There’s a way to get that crucial advice before your company gets big. You can form a business advisory board, asking for advice from people who you respect on a regular basis. It may not be as formal as a board of directors, but that’s unlikely to matter — provided you’re getting the advice you need to keep your business growing.

Picking the Right People

Since you’re unlikely to pay or financially reward the members of your business advisory board, you need to consider who is going to be willing to help you. You need to think about friends and colleagues who would like to see you grow. You may find opportunities to return the favor or otherwise reward board members for their help down the line, but for the moment, you need to focus on people who are a little more altruistic.

Furthermore, you’re going to need to focus on people who have expertise in areas where you don’t. The entire point of an advisory board is to get sound advice, after all. Ideally, you’ll be able to learn from your advisors — they may even take on more of a mentorship role — but even if they just give you expert advice and don’t have time to explain the back story, you’ll benefit. Look for a diversity of experience so that you get multiple points of view.

The right people will also tell you that you’re wrong. Don’t pick your biggest fans, because they may not be able to see when something is going wrong. If they can’t recognize problems, they’re not going to be able to give you advice. If you’ve got a big critic who you’re actually friendly with, consider her for your board. You don’t have to take the advice of any particular board member, but you do need to listen to it.

Setting a Schedule

Your advisory board shouldn’t just be a group of people who you call when you run into big problems. If you’ve got a good board, they may be able to see problems coming before you notice them, so it would be nice to give them the opportunity to do so. Schedule regular meetings where you can bring your board up to date on your activities and see how everyone is doing.

Just how formal that meeting needs to be is up to you and your board. If your board is widespread, getting everyone on a video conference every few weeks may be often enough, especially if there aren’t a lot of big changes in your business constantly. But you may need something more formal, like a set date that you always meet on. Don’t be surprised if the format evolves over time.

Make a point of updating your board of advisors on how the business is doing, beyond just the specific issues you’re currently facing. Your board should be familiar with your long-term goals — one of the benefits of a board that isn’t tied up in the day to day operation of your business is that they can help you work towards a broader vision and keep you from getting caught up in the little things.

You may also find it useful to prepare a list of specific questions for every meeting. That will give you a focus for your discussion, as well as help you make sure that you’re getting advice on those issues that you’re actively dealing with.

Taking Action on Advice

A board of advisors can also be useful in holding you accountable for the work you plan to do. Especially if you’re working on your own, not having someone who will ask you for updates on your work can be dangerous: if you don’t have to tell someone that you’re not keeping up, you have no incentive to get the work done. A board can create that accountability: if you say you’re going to do something but don’t follow through, your board is going to want to know why.

At the end of each board meeting, you should have a clear list of tasks that you’re going to follow up on. Not all of them will be due at the next meeting, but you’re going to have to keep showing that you’re making progress or your board won’t want to help you — if they’re committing their time without compensation, you’ve got to keep wowing them.

That also means having a clear explanation of why you value their advice if you aren’t taking it. If you’re changing your mind after a meeting, you may want to go so far as to write out the logic behind the new decision: you don’t exactly need to justify your moves to your board, but you do need to be able to clearly explain them.

Having an active business advisory board can help you get the advice you need to grow your business on a faster basis, pushing past some of the problems that pop up for a small business. Consider whether a board of advisor may make sense for your company.

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