Could A Peer Advisory Board Help Your Small Business?

Written 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.”

Sarita Harbour writes about personal finance, business and technology. She is a former financial adviser and holds the Personal Financial Planning Designation from the Institute of Canadian Bankers.

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Ramon Canova

Marque Foods, Inc.

I initially joined TAB to learn how to better deal with ‘me.’ I perceived myself as a primary obstacle to growth. With TAB, I got plenty of ideas on how to view myself and the business differently and this has definitely improved my business. I learned that my business plan is a living document and track it periodically using the monthly progress report. In short, TAB has helped me design business processes that are more systematic, efficient and get results.

Carla Kell-Smith

C Kell-Smith & Associates

Being in business for the last 25 years and then joining my TAB board, I’ve seen such an improvement in my management style and effectiveness. TAB is a great resource for me, the information and the experience with small businesses as well as the insights shared.

Martin Simenc

Home Safety Services

For us, it’s all about generating clients. And how we’ve gone about generating those clients with the help of TAB has really been key to our ongoing success. I knew that I needed a sounding board, needed some outside expertise. And that’s exactly what TAB brings to the table. And it also holds my feet to the fire and keeps me accountable.Kalar is a patient and inquisitive listener who seeks a thorough understanding of the root origins and causes of issues before collaborating on potential solutions. He also helps me to consider "out of the box" type solutions and opportunities that invariably expand my thinking. With his help and guidance, we have resolved numerous tactical and strategic issues and positioned our company for significant growth.

Alex Vaysberg

All Industrial Supply, Inc.

TAB helps you recognize that pretty much everybody has the same type of issues with their business. It clears your head and it re-energizes you. When I leave a tab board meeting I’m re-energized to conquer not only that day, but the next year. TAB helps us focus on ourselves and the other TAB members…the answer is sometimes written on your forehead and you just need a mirror to be able to read that answer.

Adam Messner

Live Wire Supply

Being a CEO can be lonely at times. You’re looking for places to get ideas, other people to speak with to solve problems; this is the perfect place to do that...there is a good exchange of ideas and experience for growing your business and solving problems.