The Big Picture View

Best practices for putting together advisory boards that will add value, inform strategy, and help a b-school bring all the pieces of its mission together.
The Big Picture View
IT TAKES BOTH SCIENCE AND ART to assemble an advisory board so members operate as a single unit and bring real value to the business school. Having spent more than 20 years managing advisory boards, including ten years at North Carolina State’s Poole College of Business in Raleigh, I’ve collected strategies other administrators can use, whether they’re creating new boards or infusing fresh energy into existing ones:

Choose members based on your goals. Do you want them to create visibility for your school or program? Then fill your board with community leaders, such as elected officials and CEOs.

On the other hand, do you want them to open doors to internships, practicums, and full-time jobs for your students and graduates? Do you want them to facilitate faculty research and provide faculty support? Then you’ll need to build deeper relationships within the organization. That means recruiting board members with influence—people who can make a phone call on your behalf and advocate for you within their organizations.

In either case, make sure members will have the time to attend meetings and participate in the life of the college. This time commitment is vital if they are to understand the school’s objectives, know how those objectives align with their companies’ strategies, and help you achieved desired outcomes.

Fill your board with enough members to provide critical mass. Typically, only two-thirds of the board members will attend any given meeting. That’s why, over the past decade, we expanded the Poole College’s board from 20 to more than 40 members. We did that by looking at key business and industry sectors and recruiting participants with influence within their organizations.

Bring in a broad mix of viewpoints. Seek diversity in terms of years of experience, age, gender, and ethnicity. Look for a good blend of alumni—who bring a special passion to the board—and non-alumni. In addition, recruit members who represent major industries in your region. For the Poole College, that means accounting and financial services, manufacturing, biosciences, and technology.

Develop a succession plan. Members continually will transition off your board, either because they no longer can participate or because they’ve completed the terms you set when you invited them. Be prepared to bring in others from their organizations to take their places. At the Poole College, our board chair serves for two years, while other board members typically serve three-year terms. We’re always identifying potential new members at our participating organizations.

Keep your board informed. Make sure board members understand the college’s strategic goals, and educate them about how higher education works. One way to do that is to invite your university’s chancellor or president to attend one or more board functions each year.

Create a win/win situation. Allow board members to get to know each other so they can create business and social connections. At all meetings, allow for at least 30 minutes of networking. At the Poole College, we have a social event every summer where board members bring spouses or significant others.

Respect their time. Don’t expect board members to participate in activities that are more the responsibility of school administrators, such as detailed curriculum discussions that are outside their knowledge base. Don’t expect them to attend more than three board meetings a year. And choose meeting times based on their best schedules. At the Poole College, we usually set up breakfast meetings that start a little after 7 a.m. and end by 10 or 10:30 a.m.

Stay organized. Make sure someone is assigned the tasks of setting up meetings, keeping board members informed between meetings, and responding to board member requests. At the Poole College, these responsibilities take about 20 hours each month and are handled primarily by our development staff.

Once your board is assembled, make sure that you get the most value from the presence of your members—both during meetings and outside of them.

Plan ahead. Schedule and plan meetings at least a year in advance.

Always include students. Ultimately, board members want to have a positive influence on students’ lives. Bring students in to give brief presentations and allow them to mingle with the board.

Often include faculty. Bring in faculty to discuss their applied research in a way that’s translated for a practitioner audience. Choose faculty members who are articulate and engaging.

Use members as sounding boards. If there are specific areas in which the school needs industry guidance, schedule brief discussions with board members who have knowledge in those areas.

Keep them involved. Ask board members to serve on panels that explore key topics, such as how they use analytics within their industries.

Create additional opportunities. Bring board members back to campus to mentor students, deliver guest class lectures, or present student awards. At the Poole College, we also ask them to judge cases and competitions, such as our Leadership and Innovation Showcase. In addition, we always have board members at the breakfast meeting on the first day of our AACSB review, because they love to cheerlead for the school.

Involve them in fundraising. This works best if you have a specific cause, such as funding a faculty chair or professorship to help with faculty retention. Aim for 100 percent board participation by keeping board members involved in the life of the college so they see the impact their support will have.

For boards to be effective, administrators must organize them properly, staff them thoughtfully, and use them wisely. If they do, all parties—administrators, students, and company reps—will benefit from the activities of the board.