Participating in an Advisory Board: Five Principles

Having created and served on advisory boards in a number of organisations and countries, I’ve begun to see some principles that can guide others serving on an advisory board. I am not a management consultant nor an expert on advisory boards, but as I try to think through my own experiences on boards, I thought it would be fun to write about my views on what could be key principles. These have been learned the hard way, by seeing the reactions of organisations and other members of boards to my interventions – efforts to give advice and support organisations, mainly those involved in academic research.

Any organization, such as an academic unit, can get too insulated or too loosely connected to a multitude of important stakeholders, ranging from other academics to policy and practitioner communities and any audiences it seeks to reach. They may ask themselves: Is our work meeting the high expectations set for the organisation? Are we doing our work in ways that are recognised as best practice in relevant communities? How can we excel further on any number of criteria? Are we missing important topics or areas of work? Are there new and promising sources of funding? To answer such questions, it can be helpful to set up a group of individuals who are trusted to be constructive but also have a critical perspective that can inform the unit moving forward.

Given such questions, the organization often sets up an advisory board to review the unit’s work on a periodic basis and give them feedback on notable strengths and any weaknesses that could be addressed. A report or multiple documents are assembled for the board members to review and provide feedback during a short but substantively rich meeting of the board. So what principles might help board members in contributing to their next board meeting? I apologise in advance for keeping this simple, but I often forget them in the process of meeting.

  1. The organization knows far more than the board about its activities and practices.

One positive role of a board meeting is that it should force or at least incentivise the organisation to pull together a clear overview of its activities and the issues it is facing. In the process of pulling this information together and communicating it to the board, a large proportion of the work of the advisory board is accomplished. The managers and leadership of the organisation updates its sense of who has done what and with what impact over the last period of time. In the course of doing so, the organisation develops a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, and how they can or cannot be addressed, before the board even meets.

An obvious corollary of this point is that outside advisory boards really can’t possibly understand internal personnel and management issues. They might need to know they exist but without knowing the individuals and circumstances in detail, they have no basic grounding for advising an organisation. Keep the board focused on the work of the organisation and its implications. At the same time, I’ve been impressed when an organisation does not hesitate to note that it is facing some interpersonal, management, or leadership issues as one aspect of conveying the factors facilitating or limiting its work.

2. Advice is not likely to be the only – or even primary – objective of meeting with the board.

An advisory board can help progress a number of objectives with advice being only one and not necessarily the primary reason for its existence. As noted above, it creates an occasion for self-reflection by the organisation. In addition, it can help the unit reach out to other stakeholders and constituencies – by incorporating influential individuals across these different targets for outreach and providing them with information about the organisation. It can provide support to the organisation, endorsing its activities and practices. The status and diversity of individuals on the board can communicate something about the importance and diversity of the organisation. The board in a reflection of the organization.

3. There is limited time for advice.

It seems inevitable that there is limited time a board can be expected to spend reading material before a meeting, and meetings are generally limited to one or at most a few hours. Once board members reintroduce themselves to one another and the organisation presents information to remind the board about its activities and accomplishments and any new developments then little time is left for real feedback or discussion. Organisations should and usually do try to ensure there is ample time for discussion, but often over-program meetings in ways that little time is actually left for feedback. It doesn’t help to send a questionnaire or email soliciting further feedback, as the organisation will only hear what there is time to communicate during the meeting.

This is one reason why online meetings do not work nearly as well as personal face-to-face meetings of a board. Recent experience during the pandemic suggests that more advisors can attend an online meeting, which is one of the best features of meeting online. However, most in person meetings are able to embed meaningful but informal communication around the event, such as a dinner or site visits. These occasions enable individuals to clarify their assessments, time for people to get over their differences of opinion and ‘makeup’, and for the group to gain a better sense of its value to and support by the organisation.

4. Advice is difficult to give and to receive.

It is common for board members to provide very general feedback that recognises the accomplishments documented by the material communicated to the members and validating the challenges the organisation has identified. In 1995, I put together a document for the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT) that I directed which was entitled a “A Profile of Research and Publications 1995”. My key aim in compiling this was to communicate the incredible range and quality of research projects and publications that the PICT centres had completed. I was delighted when the board noted that we had done a great deal over the span of the project – they were impressed as they had not seen this pulled together until this report. It was 120 pages jammed packed with information about our work and its impact. So the members simply acknowledging the productivity and quality of the programme was exactly the feedback I had hoped for. Very simple.

Too often, as a member of a board, I can get carried away with a perceived need to provide advice, partly, I am sure, as a reflection of commonly being asked to review books, articles, or proposals, when critical comment is genuinely requested. But an organisation probably does not want a review of its report to the board and most advice we could give is already known by the organisation. As above, they know more than the board about the strengths and weaknesses of their organisation. So I try to prioritise what I have to offer in case I have a very limited time to speak – what would be my one idea.

Nevertheless, organisations need to listen and accept that they have asked for advice in creating an advisory board. So do not be surprised if you get advice you don’t want to hear. There is no need to take the advice. More than likely it is something that should have been considered before, but it is always worth understanding what the advisor is seeing and saying, and asking why particular advice was given and whether it is an idea for the leadership to kill, further discuss, develop, or possibly better deal with in your communication about the organisation’s project(s).

5. Advise and forget.

Finally, despite all I have said above, it is entirely fair and appropriate for any member of an advisory board to give any feedback that seems useful for the board member to convey. In my opinion, as a board member, you really should not worry about how it is received or whether it will be well received. Some may regard your advice as simplistic, wrong, old-fashioned, patronising, ill-informed, or in any other way, unhelpful. But that is not your problem. You are simply responding to what you’ve read and heard and think important to communicate. That is what you volunteered your time to do, so board members really can’t afford to second guess whether to communicate what they’ve gathered from the material. It is the option of the organisation to take or leave your advice. If your feedback is unhelpful, such as in misunderstanding what the organisation has done, then they need to do a better job in communicating their work or in selecting advisors.

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In conclusion, and to be fair, the aim of any member of an advisory board is not simply to give advice. People join an advisory board because they have been asked, or because they want to keep up with the field, support an organisation, or meet other members of the board – network, or you name it. In commenting on this blog, a colleague put it this way: “In addition to giving advice, I see the board’s role as providing a web of professional networks that create an additional resource for the organisation. Advisory board members should use their networks for a variety of functions, such as raising visibility, distributing information about outputs or vacancies, and helping organizational leaders establish contacts.”

Given these potential payoffs, I’ve found every advisory board I’ve served on to have been beneficial in many ways, both personally and professionally.

Is there another principle I should add to this list?

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