On January 29th, 2015, Sharkansky LLP had the pleasure of hosting one of our highly-anticipated business perspective events. This particular event focused on advisory boards and the importance of having one within a growing business. Several common questions held by business owners on the topic of advisory boards were answered by the experienced business professionals on the event’s panel.

Jay Pike of Sharkansky LLP served as the moderator and the panelists included:

  • Kate Putnam of CEO Assist: Kate has sat on a range of boards during her professional career. Her expertise are in areas such as helping company transition ownership, aid companies with start-up healthcare, actively working on advisory boards.
  • Donna Abelli of Abelli CFO Consulting: Donna is currently the chairman of the board of Rockland Trust, with experience in CPA work. She is also the adjunct professor at Bridgewater University, where she has experience in working with University advisory boards.
  • Mike Kennedy of Global Solutions: Mike, the COO of Global Solutions as well as a Sharkansky client, has experience with his company’s several boards meant for specific issues over the years, ranging from transition issues to ownership succession. Jay of Sharkansky LLP acted as the mediator during this forum, providing FAQs he has come across in his experience with helping both businesses and their owners stay on track and remain accountable.

Their collective knowledge and experience on the topic of advisory boards provided invaluable information and perspective on common questions that clients have regarding advisory boards today. Below is an overview of the event’s content.

What are the purposes of advisory boards that can exist for a business?

They can be long-term for strategic purposes or short-term for a specific issue that needs to be addressed, such as independently challenging the thinking of or bringing fresh perspective to management, or ownership transition to the next generation or non-owner management.

How do you hold ownership accountable since the Advisory board has no legal authority?

Mike’s perspective was to buy-in at all levels, especially the ownership level.  He emphasized the critical importance if everyone in the company wants to get value out of it. Preparation for meetings and high quality discussion is also very important. Kate said the board can bring ideas, concepts, and perspectives that you didn’t know. She used the example of a board being similar to telling someone your New Years Resolution and how it helps you stay accountable to yourself. Donna posed the question of what accountability means, stating that your advisory board members will leave if they don’t feel valued.  She said it’s not difficult to find advisors, but they want to feel heard and one way to do that is to implement their ideas.  Her advice was to put a Chair in place.  That person can be the primary communicator with the business owner. The Chair can drive consensus when the board and management disagree on which direction to take on an issue.

How can you keep advisory boards accountable?

Kate said compensation is important, and gave the example of one company offering stock options, and another company offering $1,000 per quarterly meeting. Compensation is based on how much time the person must invest in preparing for the meeting, in meetings, and making valuable introductions.  No one will make a living serving on boards so the feeling that you’ve made a difference for someone’s business is of value too. Donna agreed and gave the advice to pay retainer and pay their expenses per meeting. There is sometimes prestige of being on a board, so that has value.  Some people may work for free or as a favor in the right situation, you just have to find the right motivation. Mike said if the company has the ability to pay, it should pay.  However, you must consider the time commitment, including meeting preparation time in reviewing materials in advance of the meeting.

How do you determine the profile of the board before it is assembled?

Mike advised to go into the process of creating a board with a particular purpose in mind.  Provide potential board members with a timeline, e.g., 2 year commitment with quarterly meetings, specific topics/issues likely to come up, etc.  Also, find people with a variety of sales/marketing, financial, operations, HR and those that will speak and listen with mutual respect. Kate emphasized a formal interview process, so management and the potential board member can evaluate the relationship. It’s important to find intellectually curious individuals who can collaborate so that everyone is on the same page and can provide healthy discussion. Diversity of thought and different backgrounds is essential. However, don’t invite your friends onto your advisory board – best to have it be a business relationship.  Donna said to consider your goals and break into certain ethnic market or grow drastically, then find people who are in that community or CEOs of businesses 5x bigger than yours if your goal is growth.  Character matters – you want board members who can learn quickly so they can quickly provide advice and won’t be afraid to share their opinion.

How do you find advisory board members?

Mike suggested using your network. Ask for recommendations from your bank, peer group, CPA firm, or industry recruiter with a good network. Kate stressed the danger in having competitors on your board, and how there may be a conflict of interest down the road at some point.   LinkedIn is a great source in order to look at your friends’ connections for the skills.  Some examples might be The Boston Club, which has a network of qualified women, Boardprospects.com, Outsidedirectors.net, Chambers of Commerce, or even your advisors’ network. Donna agreed and added that a supplier could offer names for a perspective on industry, and that good board member options should be those second and third in your network connections.

How many people are on a board?

Mike and Kate both agreed that the number should remain low to avoid complication. Mike currently has three people on his company’s board.

How do you evaluate the effectiveness of a board?

Donna highlighted the importance of asking yourself if you look forward to the meeting.  If not, something is wrong.  You should want to meet with this group and engage with them. When you engage, everyone learns. You should be able to wake up with clarity after hearing so many ideas the night before. Kate said it’s difficult to create metrics. It’s a partnership with management. If management feels good about it and if this is a good way for management to send its time, then you’re likely on the right track.  Mike also added that feeling challenged is important.  If you aren’t hearing new points or areas management is pushed to do better on, then the board may not be effective.  Keep an eye on which management person is in charge of or accountable for the next action step in the board’s plan.  It’s important to improve metrics over time in certain areas that are related to the focus of the board.

What should the frequency of meetings be?  More meetings, more engagement?

3-4 times per year, they all agreed, with updates and communication in between so there’s top of mind for everyone and to minimize forgetfulness of ideas. Meeting more frequently is too often for advisors, and managers need time to make progress in between meetings.

What would you do about an owner that says he/she want to have a board but then isn’t committed and doesn’t properly prepare?

Kate advised to tell the truth.   If the company doesn’t get anything out of it or doesn’t need the advice, it’s not a good use of anyone’s time. Donna said to first ask why the owner isn’t committed.  Does he/she want to take their company forward in a vacuum? The more informed your decision is, the more input, and you’ll feel more confident that you are moving in the right direction. Mike continued on the idea that people work in their business, and not “on” their business. An advisory board allows time to focus on strategy and get outside perspectives.  It forces time to think strategically. Preparation and meeting time are valuable in order to help management be accountable.

Who sets the agenda?  How do you set agendas for meetings?

Realistically it has to be one person, said Mike.  Could be the CEO, COO, CFO with input from others, but responsibility has to be with one person.  Kate added that if the board is engaged, they may start to suggest things that should be on the agenda.  Yes, someone is responsible for setting the agenda, but ideas will likely come from the board members.

 

 

Many important questions were asked during the business perspective’s meeting that clarified several clients’ outlooks on advisory boards. The panelists gave excellent responses to each question and shared their valuable knowledge with all those who attended. Sharkansky LLP thanks Kate Putnam, Donna Abelli, and Mike Kennedy for their respected advice and to all those who attended the event.

The next Business Perspectives event will be focused on cyber security, occurring May 14 of this year. More information on this event can be found on the Business Perspectives page on the Sharkansky website.