Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How to Build a World Class Advisory Team

One of my main goals this year has been to expand my group of mentors and advisors, so they’ve become a bit of a recurring theme on this blog lately. The results have been remarkable. In the last year, I have developed relationships with a variety of business leaders who, frankly, I’m humbled to even be able to get on the phone. Their advice has been invaluable.

A few of you have been on me to share exactly how I’ve gone about getting all these guys on my team, so I’ll do that here. I’ve definitely learned a few things along the way.

Keep in Informal
I have never actually asked anyone to “be my Advisor.” Doing so seems like a major request, especially of someone who doesn’t know me and who’s time is scarce and valuable. Instead, I simply ask for their advice. This is far less intimidating and it gives the relationship room to grow naturally.

Maximize Their Time - The Advisor Summary
There is a secret to finding great advisors, and this is it. Making the most of very small amounts of your advisors’ time will make them LOVE helping you. No one likes to feel like their time is being wasted, and the corollary is equally true. Make it extremely easy for them to give you a lot of assistance with very little time and they will love you for it.

My favorite way to do that is with what I call an “Advisor Summary.” It has been by far the most important tool in building my advisor relationships – a secret weapon of sorts. It’s about eight pages long and looks very much like the Executive Summary of a business plan. Really, that’s what it is. It is formally written and presented. It has sections on “Who We Are” (mission/vision), “Where We Are Now” (personnel, projects, market reach, etc), “Where We Are Going” (expansion plans, 3-5 year picture), and “Key Challenges and Opportunities.” In case they don’t have time to read all of it, each section also has a two or three sentence “super-summary.”

Of course, they do read all of it. In fact, they eat it up! After reading it, most offer to get together to discuss and then spend a great deal of time giving me specific input on my plans, usually over a long meal. Collectively, their input has been the best education I’ve ever had. It’s fabulous.

I believe the reason these men have responded this way is because so few people who ask their advice put nearly as much time and effort into maximizing the value of their time. Doing so makes it very easy for them to offer real help.

Keep in mind that not everyone will be so anxious to help. Some (in my experience, about half) will not respond at all. When it happens, don’t waste a single moment worrying about it.

Obviously, an Advisor Summary could take many forms. Mine works well in the business world, but variations could also be used by pastors seeking counsel on growing their churches, missionaries on their ministries, and corporate employees on their departments, major projects or even their careers in general. The point is if you want the advice of very busy people, honor their time by making it as easy as possible for them to help you.

Preparing a really good Advisor Summary will take a great deal of your time. It certainly did for me. Once you have one, though, revising and updating it becomes relatively simple. Preparing it is also a very useful exercise in and of itself. Trying to boil down everything you know about your company and what it’s facing into a few short pages will force you to get very clear about what the real issues are.

Ask Specific Questions
This goes back to maximizing your advisors’ time and impact. Don’t just tell them about your business, career, or ministry and ask for their general advice. They’ll give that anyway. Instead, give some serious thought to what is giving you the most trouble. Then ask very specific questions.

At the end of my Advisor Summary, I always attach five or six “Key Questions” written specifically for that advisor. They are always direct, practical, and relevant to the real issues I am facing at that moment. I describe specific problems and request specific answers. I usually get them.

Be aware that people will often judge your intelligence by the quality of the questions you ask – and rightly so.

No Handholding
Your advisors are there to give periodic input on the major issues you face, not hold your hand through every step of the process. Don’t expect them to meet with you every week or even every month. The longest and most treasured mentor relationship I have is with someone I meet with only a few times a year. Meeting that infrequently forces me to get clear about the real issues I’ve been facing, rather than wasting his time discussing that week’s crisis-of-the-moment.

Seek Appropriate Advisors
Most of my advisors are extremely successful business leaders who head companies much larger than mine. Most lead businesses that have some similarities to my own. All of them are men I respect. These things are key. And while you do want advisors who are ahead of you, keep it within reason. If you are just starting a very small business, seeking counsel from the heads of major corporations might not be the best use of your time or theirs.

Give Back
You will never be able to fully repay your best advisors for the value of their time and assistance. Try anyway. Give back as much as you can. This generally doesn’t mean financially, but give your advisor as many expressions of gratitude and honor as you can. Use their advice wherever appropriate and be sure to tell them when it works. Look for ways to bless them, their families, and their staff.

I also try to understand my advisors’ lives and businesses as much as possible and, in time, I do offer my own advice when appropriate. Whether it’s actually helpful to them is another matter, but it shows them I care and it generally seems to be appreciated.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I make it a point to pray for each of my advisors. I ask the Lord specifically to bless them for blessing me, and I believe that He does. Few business leaders have anyone praying specifically for their success. That’s tragic.

Friday, July 18, 2008

It's the Product, Stupid!

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to meet with Mike Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson. I’ve mentioned him here before and I’ve been reading his blog off and on for a few years now, so it was a treat to finally meet him in person.

While telling him about the launch of Learn & Master Guitar, Mike stopped me when I described how quickly things ramped up during our first year. He wanted to know “what was the hardest part about getting the word out?” I thought about it for a bit before admitting that, honestly, it seemed pretty easy. I had already spent five years marketing a similar product at another company, so the marketing strategy was no great mystery to me.

The hard part, I told him, was developing the product. It took a large investment and nine months of incredibly difficult work (thank you Steve Krenz!), but when we finally launched, people wanted it. They wanted it because it really was like no other home-study guitar course available. And since it was internet based, word spread fast.

Mike gave a knowing smile and picked up a bright yellow button that had been sitting on the coffee table between us. In big black letters it read, “It’s the Product, Stupid!” I laughed. Apparently, “It’s the Product, Stupid!” is a mantra Mike has been preaching to his team at Thomas Nelson. As he put it, “when the product is right, everything else is easy.”

I am a marketing guy. I like to believe that the right sales copy and marketing strategy can sell anything. Often it can (for a while), but if the product is lousy, it's definitely an uphill battle.

Marketing is about getting people to want what you have to offer. Offer what they already want and marketing gets very, very easy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Disagreement in a Multitude of Counselors

Over the past few months, I've been focused on expanding my advisory team and, more recently, getting their input on our company's expansion plan. The extent to which these highly successful and very busy men have been willing to guide me has been both humbling and honoring. Now that we're past the initial getting-to-know-you stuff and on to the real advising, however, there is a new challenge. They don't give the same advice.

On some issues, of course, they all agree. In fact, I now have some very clear next steps based on counsel they've given commonly. It's great when that happens! Unfortunately, there are at least as many issues where they disagree, often strongly. I'm not talking about issues that are vague or general, either. I mean very specific issues, such as org charts, proper compensation structures for management, and when (or whether) to raise capital. These are important decisions I need to get right, and very intelligent men are giving me very different answers. That's good thing.

Proverbs 11:14 says that "there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors." (My paraphrase.) Although it's not clearly stated, the inference here is that your counselors will not agree. Otherwise, what would be the point in getting a multitude? If they all said the same thing, one counselor would do.

My job now is to sift through the advice and choose what is best for my company. That's why we don't lead by committee. Nothing would get done. I know, however, that I am far better equipped to make wise decisions having heard from the "multitude" -- even on issues where they've disagreed.

The other (and perhaps more important) reason for me to have a "multitude of couselors" is that, frankly, sometimes it takes more than one person to convince me I am wrong. (Can you believe it?) This has happened a LOT lately. In fact, it's been more common for my advisors to disagree collectively with me than to disagree with each other. When they do, I pay close attention!