A Wealth of Advisors

June 28, 2011

12:30 pm

So the board meeting ends, and a few of the board members and I go out for steaks, single malt scotch and cigars.  The CEO has not been invited, and we drink, laugh, blow smoke rings and make CEO jokes.   Two board meetings later, the board fired the CEO, and I drew the short straw. That’s when it became apparent why I was invited to join the board in the first place.  I had just earned the right to be excluded from the board meeting after parties.

It’s lonely at the top, a phrase that is no less true just because it is a hackneyed cliché.  Leading a company means having vision, courage, and determination.  Words like FEAR, DOUBT, UNCERTAINTY are not words associated with Washington, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, Gates or Jobs. So where do CEOs go to share their doubts, their fears? Who vets their vision before they bring it down from the mountain? To whom can they share their vulnerability and uncertainty? Their CFO? Their board? Their COO?

Well yes, if they want to create doubt and distrust and open themselves up to the possibility of a palace coup. If an entrepreneurial leader wants to execute with certainty, inspire confidence, and create a winning culture, they should develop a circle of outside, agenda-less advisors.

When, as CEO, I came back to my board, they didn’t want to hear my doubts.  They wouldn’t abide my fears.  They expected and deserved well thought-out plans, confidently presented and expertly executed.  The board room is not a  “safe” place for a CEO to vent, decide, plan, and be vulnerable.  A CEO’s board and executive team is rife with competing agendas.  Advice and council is colored with personal bias and self-interest.

Compound competing agendas and the isolation that comes with operating in a fast-moving, lean enterprise, and there is no wonder that leaders fail. Startup entrepreneurs get caught up in the fire du jour, which often supplants the important strategic planning and decision-making required to keep the boat on course. Important decisions like those that drive an intentional culture of high performance, hiring/firing, and product pivots, don’t get enough brain cycles and suffer when the company’s most critical customer’s project has caught fire and needs attention.

Lastly, no one individual has all the answers, which is why wise King Solomon said, “A wise man has a wealth of advisors.” Companies don’t fail by consciously jumping off a cliff, they walk out off that precipice one tiny bad decision step at a time.  Those small hiring, firing, pricing decisions accrue to the reason a company thrives or cataclysmic results.

Every business leader should gather around them a group of peer advisors that:

  1. Force them to step back from the business strategies on a regular basis
  2. Work as a sounding board for critical decisions
  3. Hold them accountable

The best companies rarely achieve greatness on the strength of  a unique secret sauce.  Fierce execution of well-vetted plans improves the odds. Andrew Carnegie knew this and surrounded himself with a Master Mind group that improved the quality of his decisions. Google’s founders Sergey Brin, Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt, engaged professional outsider and superstar business coach/mentor, Bill Campbell, Chairman of the Board at Intuit. Campbell, the rock star of business mentors, created a great franchise at Intuit and mentored a list of  luminaries that include Steve Jobs.

So what should entrepreneurial leaders do to ensure they benefit from informed, well-intentioned, agenda-less council?  They can try to develop their own peer advisory board; there are several organizations they can contact that will place them into  a peer advisory group, including:

  1. Entrepreneurs Organization
  2. The Alternative Board
  3. Vistage

I’ve listed in alphabetical order only three of many organizations that can place business leaders in such a group. In addition to additional generic advisory boards, there are  affinity-based groups that develop advisory boards based on demographic or special-interests including: faith-based, gender-based and age specific groups.

(Author’s note: For the sake of transparency I should point out that as a principal in Driven Froward, I am a Small Business Vistage Chair, which means I lead a CEO peer advisory group for people who run small businesses.  In addition, I lead a working group for the Startup America Partnership that is  developing a program with the major peer advisory organizations in which they will donate time and leadership to America’s startup entrepreneurs.)

 

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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