A couple of years ago a friend of mine challenged me with the following question: “You talk about good governance of large businesses. Have you applied it to your own business?” The answer was I hadn’t. I’m a sole trader and I didn’t think about governing myself. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.
For years I have been observing how large businesses, struggling with the speed and complexity of modern world, have adopted governance mechanisms designed to increase their capacity to care, to listen and to reflect. They set up advisory boards, stakeholder councils, intranets and social spaces for sharing information across hierarchies, run strategy away days, give their staff “Google days” (days where staff can work on anything they like), cross-departmental committees and so on.
It had never occurred to me that what such an approach could work at small scale too. But why not? I have plenty of complexity to deal with. So I set up an advisory board. In practice what this meant was that I contacted three friends and asked them if they would be willing to be on my advisory board. To my delight, they all agreed (they seemed pleased to have been asked). It must be said that their responsibilities are not very onerous. I update them in writing every couple of months, and we meet once a quarter at my house for dinner. Last night was the seventh gathering.
My board is made up of three friends who live locally. Jonathan is a therapist who was formerly an independent film-maker. Emily is a mother of two young children and a former lawyer. Only one, Gwyn, is what you might properly call a business person. Each is a sensitive soul with something to contribute. Each cares enough to come along and listen to me and to offer questions, views and comments on where I and my business is going. They are not paid – I suppose they do it because I asked them, because they find the discussions interesting, because they like the company and because they appreciate my cooking! And because they care. They know that I am trying to run my business purposefully and consciously – if my main aim was to make money, I doubt they would keep coming.
At first it felt a bit strange to share details of my business with friends. I was exposing myself, sharing information that would normally be private. Perhaps there was a bit of pride too – surely I should be capable of running my business without help and advice from others? Yet, I soon got used to it, quickly seeing the benefits and realising that there was nothing to be shy about. I find the more truthfully I share, the more I benefit. In truth, what I get from the “advisory board” is not so much advice but a space to be heard.
I find the advisory board best for the questions that nag me and that I don’t quite know what to do with. How can I market myself with integrity? What sort of clients should I be working with? How can I manage my time effectively? How can I best measure how I am doing?
They are very supportive, practical and encouraging. It really helps that they know me outside work, know my family and my values. Their advice takes all this into account. They are a nice combination and they usually complement each other in the advice they give. For example, one evening I was talking about the book I am writing. Emily advised me to think about what I would need in order to achieve this task, to make sure I’m resourced and supported to achieve it. Gwyn challenged me to think about different possible ways I could distribute it. Jonathan offered a couple of helpful resources to refer to. Last night was another good session. I talked about how I am getting busier and the challenges that brings. They gave me re-assurance, advice and useful feedback.
What makes a good advisory board? For me, it’s a combination of things. I looked for a balance of skills, backgrounds and perspectives. Gender diversity is part of this (I am just contemplating inviting a fourth person, a woman, to make it two men and two woman). I looked for people who are good at listening, who can put their own ego to one side in service to something bigger. It helps if you enjoy being around them too! Having fun is pretty important in my book.
Perhaps the most important qualification for anyone on the board is that they understand what I am about. Fundamentally I am in business to play my part in the transition to a more sustainable world. It is impossible precisely to measure progress against such a vague yet ambitious goal. My advisory board, who all understand this goal, help me sense if I am on track. For that and for everything else they bring I am really grateful.