Eye on the states: Create an advisory board, then shut up and listen

Thomas Davies

For many companies, staying close to their state and local customers is an ongoing challenge. Getting around to state capitals is easier said than done, especially for senior executives with pressing tasks at headquarters. And too often when they do have a chance to get out of the office to speak with state and local officials, it's to discuss current contracts and operational issues, not future customer needs and directions.

So how do you stay on top of what's happening? And how do you do this continually and not as a one-time event?

One way is to form a government advisory committee comprising former state and local officials. It's proven to be an effective step for some companies, but it's not for everyone.

A company often will consider establishing an advisory board when it is new to the state and local market. Whatever the motivation, make sure the board has a clear charter. Advisory boards work best when there is a well conceived business purpose for establishing one. For example, you may want some advice on bringing a next generation of products to market or want some insight into future customer needs to support strategic planning.

What doesn't work well is establishing an advisory board just to help sell products or open doors. That's the role of your sales force and lobbyists, respectively. Nor should an advisory board be used primarily for public relations purposes. If you need to promote your company to the states, hire a public relations firm. State and local advisory boards should not be window dressing for marketing efforts.

Once you have a clear purpose in mind, give equal consideration to determining who the right people are to serve on the advisory board. Many companies like to have former state and local officials, such as chief information officers recently retired from government and now working in private industry and industry executives or consultants with long-standing involvement in the market. And don't forget about individuals who might be affiliated with research institutions, industry publications, nonprofit organizations or trade associations.

State and local government is a peer-to-peer market. You will be known by the company you keep. So choose wisely who you want to be associated with.

How often should meetings be held? Face-to-face board meetings ideally should be held three or four times a year. If the board meets too infrequently, members never adequately understand the company's business or develop relationships that make a difference. If you need to get input more frequently, consider holding conference calls.

Once advisory boards are established, take the time to educate your board members on your company's business. They can't be very effective if they don't understand your identity, strategy, value proposition and what sets you apart from your competitors.

Effective board members will want to know these issues not only to be able to give you informed advice but also to be able to speak intelligently to others about your business. After all, they were probably picked because they have a good professional network -- capitalize on this and make them knowledgeable ambassadors for your company.

Remember that the reason it is called an "advisory" board is so you can listen to its advice. Don't stack the meeting agenda with company presentations. No board member worth his or her salt wants to be on the receiving end of day-long PowerPoint presentations. These people joined your board because they thought you wanted their advice and council. Ask them the tough questions, and they'll give you plenty of good advice.

Thomas Davies is a state and local IT consultant. His e-mail address is tomdavies_global@yahoo.com.

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