Benefits of an Advisory Committee Can Be Huge If Managed Right

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There's a funny commercial out now where, following a first date, the man tells the woman that he'll send her a vague text with unclear messages. She replies that she'll wait a couple days and send an equally unclear text back. They then agree that they'll never see each other again.

Wouldn't it be great if we could just be candid with each other, the voiceover asks? I thought of this yesterday when I read an excellent response on the SIPA Forum from Brad Mehl, CEO of Boundless Markets, on advisory boards. He sits on many.

"CEOs get candor [from boards]," he wrote. "Since my fellow advisors and I are not employees, we can speak bluntly and with full candor—which a CEO may not often get from employees. In one of the boards I'm on, we told the CEO to put an outside vendor they were using on a very short leash. He listened and decided to change that relationship, which is beginning to pay off with more focus and sales. Employees can have political or other motivations, and advisors typically do not have the same agendas."

Having an outside board or committee of any type can be a good thing, if done right. Check out the sessions and speakers for the upcoming SIPA Conference, and you'll see an amazing group of experts in the field. Credit for this goes to a top-notch committee of colleagues from SIPA member companies, led by Heather Farley of Access Intelligence.  

The problem is, like anything else, it takes time—your and theirs. But the rewards are worth the effort. Here are seven takeaways: on advisory boards from Mehl; on conference planning committees from Brian Murphy, director of the Association of Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialists, HCPro; and on editorial boards from Lindsay Konzak, a SIPAward-winning editor who is now president of 3 Aspens Media.

1. Set clear expectations. Murphy—who will speak at the SIPA Conference—had to start a conference from scratch for ACDIS. He initially put out a call for a conference committee and found "12 folks who helped me put out all the planning for the conference and helped shape it. It gives them a voice and encourages their attendance and others in their circle. And gave us new perspectives."

2. Give value to the committee participants. "You need [to give them] a schedule, slides, additional insight into a topic, perhaps recent survey results no one had seen—an inside approach," said Konzak who managed an important editorial board for Gale Media. "Make them feel like they're in an exclusive club."

Murphy gives his planning committee a discount that saves $400. Mehl wrote that "advisory board members can get a small piece of equity for their contributions... Arm the board with information, briefings etc., so they can provide informed counsel. This is important because they may not be as close to operating details as execs."

3. Create a diverse board or committee. "We're looking for a breadth of credentialed folks," said Murphy. "I love to get a physician on the committee and a coding person, and a real balance."

"Choose the board wisely, particularly for vertical and domain expertise," Mehl added. "Diversity helps. Also think about your strategic/adjacent moves...and consider getting representation or expertise with an advisor in those areas."

"The board we built at MDM had about 8-9 people," Konzak said. "It's very important to keep the membership diverse; we had distributors, manufacturer reps, a couple retired people who knew the market and us really well."

4. Set a plan for calls. "We'll meet in July to talk about the must-have sessions and to recap past conferences," Murphy said. The conference takes place in May, this week, I believe. "For speaker reviews, we'll meet as much as weekly—usually Friday for an hour." They might move to every 2-3 weeks once things get more in place.

"We had a formal schedule of quarterly calls," Konzak said. Added Mehl: "Try to have a regular schedule for meetings. Sure, everyone's busy. But a regular schedule keeps things on track and can also keep a CEO focused on milestones, if they are to be achieved before the next advisory board meeting."

5. Trust their decisions. "The biggest thing [for me] is letting go," Murphy said. A committee member might suggest someone that you think is just wrong or coming from "out of the blue. 'All right, I'll go with this.' More often than not it will work."

Wrote Mehl: "Use the board, actively. The board is not just there for window dressing. Between meetings, CEOs should make their 'asks' for the board clear."

6. Keep the board/committee fresh. "We tried to freshen it up every year or two with new members in our target audience," said Konzak. "They really looked forward to the calls, hashing out issues, talking about trends. They wanted to be involved and interact. And we got something out of listening to amazing CEOs with new product ideas. It's just a good way to engage with actual stakeholders."

7. Use them to become more of a thought leader. The board "would literally take over the calls and choose the topic to focus on that day," Konzak said. "We benefited by just listening sometimes. 'These are the things that are on the top of our minds.' Executives got to hear the perspective of other executives. "On both sides it has to be authentic." Konzak added that in addition to their small team of editors that had to be in the room for the calls, "other people in the company would listen later because they were so valuable."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…