By Rachel Polson, partner at Baker Tilly and MHTF board member

As a startup, you’ve probably received lots of advice, best practices and “lessons from the trenches” from different people. You may have heard that leveraging mentors or other successful industry professionals can be helpful for guidance and for providing you with additional experience. One way I’ve seen companies leverage others’ experiences is by forming an advisory board to tap into the talent of seasoned business professionals.

Rachel PolsonYou might be asking, “Do I really need an advisory board? As an early-stage company, I already have a lot to do.” Think back to your high school or college years when you may have participated in job shadowing to learn about different careers. Back then, you were learning about different career options from people in those careers. Now that you’ve made your career choice, you can continue learning from others who’ve made similar choices through engaging them as advisors.

Additionally, you have employees that depend on you and the success of your business to support their lives and families. They have bought into your vision and idea of how your company can service customers or provide products with a better experience than the competition. An advisory board can provide advice and ideas help you fulfill that vision.

Why not leverage others? An advisory board can help you avoid the time and cost associated with possible mistakes. Your company may not be at the stage of having a formal Board of Directors and due to oversight and fiduciary duties, others may not be ready to sign up for that responsibility. But others are willing to serve on an advisory board.

So, if I’ve convinced you of the value of an advisory board — the next question is: who do you ask?

Reach out to one or two people you think of as trail blazers in your industry. Consider asking someone with a financial background. Also, I challenge you to seek someone in an industry you see as a far reaching space within your strategic plan.

Try to monitor any unconscious bias you may have during the selection process. Consider those who think differently than you. The goal of having an advisory board is to bring your company to a different level and you won’t get there by surrounding yourself with people who have the same experiences as you.

You want advisors who will challenge the status quo. Be prepared to answer some tough questions and to be forced out of your comfort zone. If these things happen, you’ve selected the right people for an advisory board!

Those who accept your invitation to be part of your advisory board will need to believe in your purpose. Your advisors need to feel participation on your board is a valuable use of their time, and that they have the energy and excitement to engage.

Have a detailed vision prepared for how you plan to best utilize the advisors’ time, talent and expertise. Before seeking board members, consider:

  • How will you engage and seek input from them?
  • What are the expectations for roles?
  • How often will the board meet?
  • How will your meetings encourage collaboration and strategy discussions?

Remember, an advisory board is here to help you. There is no requirement to follow their guidance or implement their ideas. Keep the meetings fresh, have topics that engage their input and ignite their passion to help you and the company succeed. Embrace these individuals with an open mind – you never know where it may lead you and the company!

Rachel Polson is a partner at accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly. She is a member of the MHTA Foundation Board of Directors and has served as a judge for MHTA’s Tekne Awards for several years.