Using Advisory Boards for Free Advice

In the April, 2009 issue of Fortune Smalll Business, Justin Martin wrote a great article on how advisory boards can give you firm a leg up.  The really good midmarket companies leverage their resources, including their boards of directors and boards of advisors. They use these business-savvy individuals as sources of wisdom and as sources of new business.

John McBeth, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of Next Century, has a passion for what he calls a “worthy purpose.” He keeps himself accountable by leaning on a top-notch board of advisors who aren’t afraid to set him straight. In contrast to this, too many small and midmarket companies tend toward boards of directors that consist of friends and family. Perhaps Uncle Joe loaned the company $100,000 ten years ago, so he still wants to run the show. But friends and family who may have been able to pony up necessary start-up funds back in the day are not capable of  providing the outside accountability that experienced business leaders offer. Many middle-market companies struggle with governance.  Entrepreneurs and C-level executives need someone to challenge them and offer the guidance and direction necessary for growth.  Uncle Joe may have great fishing stories to share at the board meetings, but he cannot mentor the leadership team when tough, challenging business decisions must be made.

There are other ways to fail to take maximum advantage of your board of directors. A company might have board members with personal agendas that lack transparency. Or a board member might try to buy the company outside the stated strategy of the executive team and the other members of the board. Leaders might isolate and disregard board members whose points of view differ from their own. That’s why board diversity is extremely useful. Boards not only provide insight, advice, and support to the CEO, their members should have strong industry and financial backgrounds to add real value to CEO decisions. Board members not aligned with the direction of the company are harmful; those with axes to grind or agendas to meet must be culled. Outside directors give business leaders the opportunity to close the books every quarter, position their companies for the future, talk about plans and leadership development, and generally guide the company with the help of other experienced leaders.

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