Creating a Small Business Advisory Board

What you need to know to create one for your business

Guide to Creating an Advisory Board
Growing a business is challenging and sometimes lonely for the business owner. It often helps to have a group of experienced business advisors to test ideas, challenge assumptions and support the business in a multitude of areas. Finding the right people to populate an advisory board is crucial to your success.

What is an Advisory Board?

An advisory board is a group of individuals, typically outsiders to the business, who possess knowledge and expertise to guide, grow and manage the business. Advisory boards can span the full spectrum of being a sounding board for the business owner to filling the gaps in expertise that is lacking in the business. The advisory board can offer assistance in all disciplines including sales and marketing, finance, human resources and operations. The advisory board can also steer the business towards achieving their objectives and goals.

Advisory boards are essential for the success of businesses of all sizes. Advisors working as a team can provide guidance that those working independently cannot hope to obtain. Advisory board members can play many roles within the business:

  • Help fill gaps in management capability
  • Provide valuable insight into challenges you may be experiencing
  • Add years of experience that can accelerate growth

Advisory boards can be very helpful in directing operations and keeping business owners informed of industry and financial trends. If the business does not have a legal advisor or an accountant, these should be the first roles to fill on an advisory board.

Why have an Advisory Board?

The first thing the business owner must do when creating an advisory board is to answer these two questions.

  • Why is this advisory board being created?
  • What is the end result desired from having an advisory board?

Answering these questions ensures the correct mix of skills and expertise are represented on the advisory board. This also ensures the business can maximize the benefit of the board to the business.

For many business owners / entrepreneurs, the decision to involve outsiders in their business may be a difficult one. Some owners fear diluting their control of the business. The introduction of an advisory board can help some come to terms with this decision, by enabling the business owner to feel comfortable providing information to, and accepting advice from, an external group. This can pave the way for an effective relationship with a formal board of directors.

Why work with an advisory board?

Advice and Counsel

There are many reasons why business owners feel isolated. Oftentimes, it is difficult to identify and build relationships with trusted advisors who can provide effective and meaningful advice and counsel. Sometimes the business itself is very complex and the speed at which the industry is changing makes it even more difficult to find the right individual or mix of individuals who can provide advice and counsel. An advisory board can provide consistency, longevity and background knowledge that enables them to provide reliable, effective advice and counsel. Having an advisory board that is being properly compensated (monetarily or through other means) helps to ensure requests for help are taken seriously and that the forthcoming advice is not given in a cavalier manner.

No Judgement Zone

Advisory boards can provide a no judgement zone for a business owner to try out new ideas and options before presenting them to the formal board of directors. When presenting to a board of directors, the business owner must be forceful, definitive and assertive. Presenting new ideas – even partially defined ideas – before an advisory board gives the business owner an audience that can be challenging and helpful, because their sole purpose is to provide advice and counsel. The advisory board can act as a sounding board. Many times, ideas presented before the advisory board morph into bigger and more well-defined plans that can transform the company.

Laser-Focused Input

There may be a very specific aspect of a business that the business owner feels unprepared or unable to address on their own. Among others, this oftentimes involves areas such as marketing, sales, product management and finance. An advisory board can be created to address only the specific issue with a laser-like focus. The advisory board need not be involved in any other aspects of the business. This can free the advisory board and the business owner to become extra creative in problem solving.

To this end, having successful entrepreneurs from outside the industry on the advisory board can expand the business owner’s vision as these advisory board members will look at the business with a fresh perspective.

Fiduciary Responsibilities

Formal board directors expose themselves to a variety of liabilities (responsibility for unpaid wages, unpaid taxes, environmental damage, etc.) and to fiduciary and other duties that can lead to liability. An advisory board would need to take a very active role in company management (strategically and operationally) before realistic risk that liability could be attached to the advisory board members. Because of the fiduciary responsibilities that go hand in hand with a formal board of directors, individuals who do not want to expose themselves to such potential liability may be better suited as advisory board members.

Stepping stone to a board of directors

The creation and implementation of a formal board of directors is a long-term project. Rather than jumping into a formal board of directors, an advisory board comprised of individuals with the appropriate skills can be a great interim step. In some cases, members of an advisory board can effectively transition to the formal board of directors. The good thing is the business owner can get to know the individuals, how they contribute and how they communicate while on the advisory board before asking them to become a member of the formal board of directors.

A smaller advisory board can work more effectively than a larger, formal board of directors. The proper size of a board of directors is debatable, but the size is mostly based on the life cycle stage of the company. All companies face limitations on the size of their formal boards. Advice and counsel can be acquired from an advisory board for a defined period of time rather than creating or growing the formal board of directors to an unmanageable size.

Business owners must be committed

Remember, an advisory board is set up to provide advice and counsel to the business. At the end of the day, if the business owner creates an advisory board but ignores the advice and counsel provided by advisory board members, those advisory board members will know there is a lack of commitment. In the end, the business owner will get out of an advisory board exactly what they put into the creation, development and operation.

Learn what you need to do to properly operate an advisory board for your business.

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Testimonials

Petruska

I appreciated the professional presentation of information that was both objective and free of self-promotion, providing a more productive presentation which in turn allowed for the business expertise of your group members to speak for themselves. We found the information and materials to be useful and applicable to our practice.

Len Petruska, CPA, MST, President

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