Peers: The Secret Sauce to Advisory Board Success

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The formula for a successful customer advisory board is simple, but can be challenging to achieve: it’s all about reciprocal value. You have to create as much value for members as you expect to get out of it yourselves as the sponsoring company.

As companies think about putting together a group of strategic customers to advise and inform their business strategy, they find it easy to see how that brings value to themselves. But they don’t always understand how to create value for their customers in joining the board. It sometime surprises companies that we find that strategic customers do find value in providing advice and counsel – but even more surprising to them is the extent to which Council members find value in the convening of their peers.

The reason for this is that executives place a particularly high value on what they learn from peers, and true executive peer communities and environments are few and far between. They are hungry for opportunities to engage and solve shared problems and uncover new ideas in a safe and intimate environment. This is true for your own executives as well.

In our work helping to build and facilitate customer advisory boards, that desire for peer connection is really at the heart of things. When you have peers guiding your strategy, you gain a deeper understanding of their business and challenges that your solutions and services can help them overcome. And your clients gain insight from those business challenges and shared solutions as well, from a trusted source – someone in their shoes.

One of the things we do when working with advisory boards is to regularly reach out to the members one-on-one to determine what they want to talk about on an upcoming agenda, to ensure they are interested in (and have insight on) those topics, and that we understand their challenges and priorities. No executive wants to sit in a room for an hour hearing about topics that don’t interest them or affect their business.

To get started in the right direction for tapping into the power of peer connection, here are a few things to consider when building and operating a customer advisory board:

Convene the right peers. Keep everything at the same level, and that everyone in the room are truly peers. They need to have an equal value to each other as they do to the executives from your company who are sitting around the table. For your board members to learn as much as they share, they all need to see themselves – and your executive members – on the same level. Revisit the membership over time to make sure this remains the case.

Peer sharing should be on the agenda. The most effective way to showcase and support the peer exchange is to assign specific blocks of time on the agenda. We find that shaping the agenda in advance to this end is also a good idea, so a member comes prepared to talk about a specific issue in advance to prompt the discussion.

Make sure they know sharing is expected. From the outset, the board members need to know they are there to contribute. Make it part of the charter that members are expected to present a story every year. If members start noticing reluctant participants during the meeting, it will decrease trust and close down conversation over time.

Keep it confidential. The advisory boards we run use a version of the Chatham House rules, which allows participants to talk about what is said in the room but forbids attribution to the individual or the company they represent. This protects the board members from unwanted sales calls but also sets the ground rules for trust and openness among members. If this gets breached even once, momentum and trust will quickly erode.

It is important to remember that the executive peer connections formed within an advisory board reflect strongly on the sponsoring company. It elevates your ability to connect with executives around the things that matter to you. You also get the brand lift and the perception of thought leadership just because you were able to bring this group together.

But, most importantly, by sharing value of peer connections in participating on your board, you will all learn things that your competitors will be unable to replicate.

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