Working With Your Advisory Board

Paul Redfern shares ideas on how to maximize time spent with advisory councils and boards.

August 25, 2015

Advisory councils and boards come with the territory for chief marketing officers. They are key constituents and some of your best brand ambassadors. Even when they may be your sharpest critics, your board members are your institution’s true believers. A CMO should seek — and welcome — the opportunity to interact with them.

The more open and transparent you are when asking for advice from your board or council, the more constructive and useful the information you get back will be.

If your board meetings are anything like ours at Gettysburg College, they take a good amount of preparation and follow-up. As I write this, I have our spring meetings in my rearview mirror and my sights set on the fall series.

Thanks to a great mentor, I’ve learned that the meeting begins well before the board ever steps on campus. I’ve learned not to over pack the agenda — if you try to cover too much, you sacrifice depth for breadth. In advance of the meetings, we provide an executive summary with key takeaways and discussion questions for main agenda items.

The time you invest in developing a relationship with the leader of your group is guaranteed to provide a high return on investment. I work closely with the chair of our Communications and Marketing Advisory Council to set and frame the agenda before the meeting and to discuss follow-up after it’s over. These discussions help set expectations for both the group and our team.

Make the time with your board or advisory groups discussion-based. Folks didn’t travel from far and wide to hear you talk. You (or another staff member) may need to set up the discussion with a short presentation, but keep your focus on the advice and participation you need from your volunteers. Use your best facilitation skills.

I’m an advocate for bringing projects, initiatives, and topics to the table for authentic discussion. It is so tempting to present items that are fully developed, vetted, and wrapped up. But finished products invite your board to bring out the rubber stamp. You’ll gain insights and their best thinking if you ask for their input on work in progress. That’s using the expertise in the room to your advantage.

For example, last spring we brought our Communications and Marketing Advisory Council together to consider plans for a new leadership certificate that will be offered through our Garthwait Leadership Center. With our colleagues in the college life division, we prepared the relevant research, shared the proposed program structure, and offered communications plans. We were open about where we thought there could be gaps and where we needed the board’s advice.

The topic was one that these leaders in their own fields were eager to tackle. After our short overview, they had a good, productive, and honest discussion. They made some important contributions, advising us to make stronger connections between our efforts in the career development area, the leadership certificate, and our entrepreneurship initiatives. Had we presented the new certificate program for their information rather than their input, we would have missed the opportunity to make it stronger and have a greater impact.

To make this work, though, you’ll need to mentor your staff in the dynamics of volunteer committees. It does not come naturally to present programs, information, and initiatives that are not fully ready, nor does it come naturally to field questions and comments without becoming defensive. Help your team understand that it takes confidence and resilience to vet a topic. Help them get past the feeling inviting outside discussion and input undermines their own expertise.

The way to get the most out of your conversation is to truly want the advice of your board or council. Ask them. And mean what you ask.


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