Could a Peer Advisory Board Help Your Small Business?
February 17, 2015 | Business and Careers
By Sarita Harbour
While big businesses enjoy the collective wisdom of a highly experienced, elected board of directors and large pools of executive talent, today’s small-business owners may not know where to turn for business advice or mentorship. A peer advisory board could be the answer.
As a member of a peer advisory board, sometimes known as a peer advisory group or mastermind group, you’ll meet with a group of business owners at professionally facilitated meetings to collaborate on issues facing each member. As you receive help with your own decisions, you will in turn help other members of the board make choices and solve problems for their businesses. Peer advisory boards can be set up through for-profit or nonprofit organizations at the local, national or international level.
Rick Maher, partner in Effective Human Resources/Maher & Associates, is a member of the Suffolk, Long Island, chapter of The Alternative Board (TAB), an international for-profit peer board and advisory organization. Maher became part of the group six years ago. “I joined the board a couple of months before starting my business,” he said. “I knew if I did it on my own, I’d get into trouble—how was I going to build a scalable business without business knowledge?”
Who’s on the Board?
While they may have different criteria for membership—ranging from location to revenue to gender—peer advisory boards are all built on finding a common element among their members.
For example, the nonprofit Women Presidents Organization serves women who are presidents of multimillion-dollar businesses. Vistage, another for-profit peer advisory service, offers what it calls a Key Executive Program to support key executives working in large organizations.
Other advisory boards, such as those created by TAB, consist of a cross-section of business owners representing a variety of industries. The common elements are revenue and number of employees, said Jason Zickerman, TAB’s president and CEO.
What They Do
Peer advisory boards exist to help their members solve specific problems. “The great thing is you get to meet each month with eight to ten people who really know your business,” Maher said.
Although other types of business groups may also meet regularly, Zickerman said that’s where the similarity ends. The purpose of TAB, he said, is simple: “We help business owners make fewer bad decisions.”
Though the details may vary depending on the peer board, TAB boards follow a clearly defined process to identify, discuss and solve the issues addressed at each meeting—a process that includes an additional monthly meeting between each member and a business coach.
“Each month I have a session with my business coach in which we prepare topics for board discussion. This really holds you accountable,” Maher said.
Why Join a Peer Advisory Board?
Peer advisory boards give their members arm’s-length advice, knowledge and support that business owners can’t get from their own business team or traditional advisers.
“Unfiltered advice is very difficult to get for a small-business owner because, typically, anyone you’re going to talk to is tied to you somehow,” Maher said.
He said advice from his board helped him see and understand the concept of the lifetime value of a client and was instrumental as he built his business’s retention/service model.
“As a result, our client retention has doubled, and the average revenue per client has doubled,” Maher said. “Additionally, it helps me to have a more stable business, predictable revenue, and one day a more profitable business that is more valuable to a potential buyer.”
What to Watch for
If you’re considering applying for membership on a peer advisory board, there are a few things to keep in mind, said Zickerman:
1. You’ll be expected to give as well as get advice. “Contribute as much as you receive,” he said.
2. Be on the lookout for potential conflicts of interest with other members. “If you have competitors or key vendors on a board, advice is compromised,” Zickerman explained. “You need open and clear communication for the board to be effective.”
3. Determine whether the advisory board has processes in place to protect the information you share with the group. Be prepared to sign a confidentiality agreement.
4. Find out who is facilitating the board meetings and managing the group. A professionally trained facilitator is a critical component to keeping meetings and communications moving. “They know how to bring the more reticent members out and control those who are more dominant,” Zickerman said.
While peer advisory boards have long existed to support executive members, they’re particularly well suited to provide detached, broad-based knowledge and advice to the growing numbers of small-business owners. By meeting regularly with a group of peers who get to know the particulars of your business, you receive specific, actionable advice and save time and money by learning about (and avoiding) the mistakes your peers have made.
“You get unbiased, candid advice,” said Zickerman. “That’s simply invaluable.”
Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.