Vital Access

April 29, 2010

Parents, Students, Internships and Social Networks

Filed under: Education, Internships, Online Communities — Scott Lichtman @ 4:41 am

Recently, I’ve taken devoted time outside of designing business networks for investors, lawyers and corporate professionals, to talk with two high schools about creating a network of parents and alumni that mentor students professionally.  The mentoring includes summer or school-year internships, take-a-child-to-work day; classroom lectures and in-school business projects.

The premise is that parents of the students are a tremendous but usually under-organized resource for helping all children in the school explore jobs, gain introductory business experience and build their professional resume in preparation for college and beyond.  In the current economy, it’s especially difficult for aspiring young professionals to acquire opportunities professional learning and work, whether it’s in graphic design, architecture, veterinary skills, green jobs, social causes, etc.  And there are many parents willing to give some flexible amount of time, even if (in a private school situation) ability to give money is constrained these days.

A Social Network for High School Parents and Students

Such a career connection program has strong characteristics related to successful, online-faciliated communities: it’s a private or pre-screened network, where each ‘provider’ (a parent) has a strong possibility for benefit (to their own children), and profile information is easy to represent and share. You can even think of social networking features like discussion groups and fan clubs, where talk about a career path or business project is shared.

The idea of an organized parent / alumni / student social network, documented in a skills- and willingness-to-help database, and supported by school staff to ensure quality, is apparently not that common, given my conversations with a sample of educational professionals and online research.  The basic idea is straightforward but there are a number of hurdles to address.  I welcome feedback from readers about schools that have such programs or want to pilot them.

Lots of Ways to Mentor

Here’s the concept: the school staff/board/PTA ask parents to volunteer information about their profession and company background (e.g. solo practitioner or corporate, location) and opt-in to any of the following: a willingness to speak to students occasionally on the phone; present at a class; help run a short professional project at the school or be a judge of a business contest; take a student to work for a day or a week; or offer a full-blown internship.  Parents are strongly motivated to participate, time permitting of course, because they want their own child to have a skill-developing, resume-building professional opportunity and because their relatively small circle of friends may not have something immediate to ‘swap’ among their kids. Students have some access to the database, possibly with staff intermediation (or with certain contact information hidden) and after some screening to ensure true commitment, are put in touch with a parent relevant to their interests.

Yes, but…

The hurdles to address are several, the greatest being ensuring the quality of the experience for everyone involved.  Parents who invest time in students don’t want it wasted through an excess of calls or investment in students that aren’t committed to working hard and learning.  The students are looking to internships for real learning experiences, not making copies.  Other considerations include how to measure the return on investment to the school for managing the program, prioritization of student requests, and ensuring parents’ data privacy.

Moving Forward…

The above challenges can be addressed, primarily through careful design of the program with school staff, and a selection of parents and students, plus careful screening and monitoring of quality, at least until a culture of mutual commitment to success is created.  I’ll be exploring this program idea further with the school and welcome ideas and collaboration.   At minimum, a school/parent/student network is a positive, self-sufficient, democratizing alternative to a trend of better-off families paying firms thousands of dollars to set up internships for their children.

Today

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August 2, 2009

10 Secrets to Crowdsourcing Your Website & Logo Design

Filed under: Crowdsourcing, Marketing, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Scott Lichtman @ 6:54 pm

I recently used the 99 Designs site to crowdsource the website design and logo for my new company, Extreme Collaboration.  Extreme Collaboration is itself a crowdsource play – inviting salespeople and marketing to help growing companies for a share of the profits they create, and in some cases, jobs

Promising a $1,000 prize for the best website home page and inner page templates, and $350 for the best logo, yielded 82 entries for website design and 225 logo ideas, both including variations on themes. Compare this to the ‘old’ Internet bubble days, where a few thousand dollars to one designer or agency would get you three website variations to choose from.

Here are ways to make your graphic design crowdsource contest as effective as possible:

  1. Be a cheerleader. There’s a critical mass with design contests – the more people submitting designs, the more others decide they need to participate too.  After a few days, we only had a handful of designs provided, definitely not our vision… So it’s essential to get to a critical mass of 20-30 designs, which you encourage by providing same-day feedback to the first designers individually and in the group discussion area.  Also, post your contest to friends on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.  Work to achieve 10 entries, even including variations from the first few designers. On 99 Designs, this enables you to guarantee the prize will be paid out to someone (otherwise you can say ‘no thanks’ to all submitters). The guarantee doubled my number of entries by the next day and started an upward level of activity.
  2. Be a coach. Once a designer is in the project, they will take your direction very seriously as it increases the odds of a winning payout to them.  So keep the direction fairly open at the outset to allow for creativity, but once you’ve decided which types of designs will work, don’t hesitate to restrict new input in this direction. After the first week, we laid out every desig across a table and applied requirements such as layout of elements you could see without scrolling and colors we liked, then told every designer to follow the same direction in week two. This took some getting used to for the designers who wanted latitude, but it gives you many more options that fit your needs.
  3. Stay brief. Our original web specification was 5 pages long, explaining our business, customers, culture and website constraints to give more precise direction to designers. One designer said it was the most thorough spec he’d seen, but it turns out most designers won’t join the contest if the spec is longer than 2-3 pages. In the end, we slimmed the spec down to the essentials for proposing our designs, and relied on iterative feedback to take it further.
  4. Cultivate the real experts. Hidden among the many design contributors who are treating their submission as a quick-effort, one-time bet on whether they can make money, are a handful of designers who care about your success and their craft.  These are people you want to make friends with, reaching them through private contest messages or Skype.  They’ll answer design implementation questions like which video player to use and which menu schemes are easier to render, point out if they’ve seen other design submissions somewhere on the Web already.  Realize that you win not when you pick a design, but when it’s successfully implemented, so prefer the designs of these artisans. You should stay in touch with them after the contest, as they can give you input (or services) over the course of your business.
  5. Get outside feedback. In a dozen years in marketing, I’ve seen time and again that what you as business exec think is a good design will vary tremendously from what your colleagues and customers think.  When we had 60 logo designs, we polled 25 friends-of-the-firm to ask what handful of designs they liked best. No single design received more than 3 votes! Some folks wanted flashy graphics, other were more concrete in getting ‘meaning’ of the company’s services into the design, some wanted muted colors, other more eye-catching.  My business partner and I picked the 4 designs we liked best, then put it out to vote again (the two of us had different opinions on the best), and finally picked a winner that worked for us and that the majority of input providers also voted for.
  6. Be human. The ‘crowd’ of designers is judging you, too and will criticize your process if not run well – not great for the karma of your contest.  In situations where your feedback is less than prompt (let’s see, because you have other priorities running your business?) or your direction changes, apologies are in order. And clarifications both to the group and leading design individuals should follow.

In the end, crowdsourcing designs is a great, cost-effective way to receive a lot of variations that you, or a single designer, never would have considered. The process requires time and nurturing to get off the ground and see through to a quality result.  At it’s best, however, it holds the seeds of a community of creative supporters that can help you even after the contest is over.

Here’s our winning website design by Mads Ejsing of Denmark.

July 16, 2009

Crowdsourcing is sexy, right?

Filed under: Crowdsourcing — Tags: , , , — Scott Lichtman @ 4:17 pm

Confidence is sexy

Right?

is the  hesitant-but-funny imprint on a t-shirt that was captured from a Twitter tweet by @eoporto, voted thumbs-up by a random audience, set to a cool design, and manufactured by Threadless, the crowdsource t-shirt maker. Threadless has an ongoing contest to vote for the best new tweets then t-shirt-izes them. Shirts sell for $18 – high but not outrageous for something produced in micro-batches, for those who want to enjoy the latest phrase, maybe created by a friend or family member.

It’s one of the many ways that crowdsourcing is becoming the next wave of social media – don’t just talk to each other, but create something with friend and the entire web community, then get a piece of the action selling it.  This applies to many markets, including any fashion or food/beverage co’s that want to boost their trendiness and community of passionate followers, and even B2B products looking for referrals to more businesses.

I’m exploring this trend myself through Extreme Collaboration, a new company that is producing Internet reality TV shows about companies with cool ideas, and inviting ‘the crowd’ to participate in the projects and share in a large portion of the profits.  Stay tuned for learning from this venture.

Managing Effective Advisory Boards – Robert Fisher Interview #2

This blog completes an extensive interview with Dr. Robert Fisher about managing effective strategic advisory boards. The first post covered creating these boards, and this entry focuses on managing and growing them. The overall theme is that there is a unique role for specialized advisory boards that fiduciary Boards of Directors and consultants don’t fill, but they require careful management. Investing time, sharing knowledge and being open to constructive debate can achieve breakthrough results .

Robert Fisher, MD, MSPH, has advised top leadership at organizations including Kaiser Permanente,Robert Fisher Salesforce.com, Intuit, the National Institutes of Health, Charles Schwab, Inc., and a number of startups. He often takes the role of advising senior management so they can effectively align the strategy across the leadership team and deploy it across the organization. I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with Robert on several such projects. Robert currently serves as board member of the Science and Technology Corporation at University of New Mexico, and CEO of Fisher Leadership Strategy.

Robert, in our first interview you summarized by saying that advisory boards can achieve breakthrough outcomes for a company, but only with careful management…

You can think of planning and managing your board’s dynamics according to four elements, or “Four Cs”: Constituencies, Commitment, Chemistry and Conflict. These translate into specific management activities, including role definition and governance, onboarding, knowledge transfer, meeting management and sub-committee projects.

How focused on immediate issues should the board be, versus long-term strategy?

Advisory boards can play a role both on immediate issues and on long-term strategy, but most companies will feel more confident in their value if there is payback by targeting pressing concerns. Think of breaking objectives into 3 to 6 month milestone periods. While some initiatives will take 6 months, and you want the board members to plan for a year or more working with you, it adds a sense of urgency if both parties look for outcomes each quarter, especially if the board is being compensated to be truly active, and the company wants ROI on its investment and time.

This strong-commitment, high-impact approach contrasts with many boards, where members meet once every 3 or 6 months for a dinner or briefing, but only provide anecdotal input to decisions.

Urgency is important to understand. Is there a decision-point or milestone coming up that will affect the viability of the organization? In these cases, the board members as well as executives need clearly understood roles and deliverables, and chemistry-building can come later.

One of my clients was a small group of very senior leaders, on a board for a national health policy consortia. Their funding source came to me and said “they’re not doing everything that’s necessary to become cutting-edge… If they’re not clearly a leader in laying out policy direction, they will no longer be supported.” I began my involvement by having the group focus on the reasons the process wasn’t working. The issue was that, individually, they were intelligent and strong-willed leaders, authoritative, but on the board everyone had an equal vote and consensus was often reached, but the price was mediocracy. They could overcome their differences but the process diluted excellence. Finally, I had to help them go in an unexpected direction: that was they had to become hierarchical, build in actual CEO and Chief Science Officer roles. Initially, this was not welcome advice, but proved right. Democracy had grown to be the enemy of excellence. There aren’t cookie cutter solutions in complex systems.

How do you get the most out of board members’ talents?

For the greatest value, you want board members to take projects on and champion certain ideas and be a somewhat independent voice. They should join the board after a frank discussion of what they bring to the table, how much time they can offer, what areas they are willing to delve into, and what rewards they expect. I serve on one board that is quite large. It is tasked to make decisions which have value in terms of community representation (that is, the institution wants to maximize its benefit to the surrounding business and social community). The size of board that is large can make operation complex. We use size to our advantage, however, by have idea leaders and committees work on several key issues at the same time.

How does a larger board function effectively?

Somehow, the culture of the board I’m serving on has allowed a large number of members to contribute effectively without creating inertia. It is a very egalitarian board. Each member has considerable authority in their experience and position. Everyone is listened to very carefully. The chair listens and leads direction, but the board comes to some very difficult decisions with good agreement. They are quick, but never too fast, they can take on challenge, and as a group, that have evolved into a very intelligent organization. Interestingly, there is a sufficient transfer of knowledge and process that despite a certain amount of turnover across time, the board remains intelligent and highly effective.

How do you develop a productive chemistry among board members and management?

First, you should recognize that agreement and harmony aren’t the objectives themselves. The risk with 100% agreement is that new and even controversial ideas and viewpoints aren’t being considered. You benefit by having someone on the board who is oppositional – not merely for the sake of being contradictory – but somehow who is constantly revisiting the group’s assumptions. To use this input, you need to lay out an approach everyone is aware of, to be truly open to contradictory views, to objectively assess the potential or risks in those views, and to incorporate them into the agenda going forward.

Advisory boards are made up of intelligent and well-intentioned senior people, but that’s not a guarantee that they will find a way to work well together. A good board moderator, someone independent of specific decisions, can balance opening opportunities for everyone to contribute, with rewards and pressures to ensure everyone conforms to the basic operating rules for efficient function.

What other constituents should you consider in terms of board impact?

There’s not only the interplay between the investors or corporate management sponsors, the board members and the management team. A board can also facilitate a dialogue with other constituencies, such as customers or the community in which the board operates. For one university board I was invited to join, the top priority was to improve the relationship between the faculty producing research and the organization that was charged with commercializing this technology. The licensing unit had had several CEOs over time with different priorities. The first focused or formalization of the process and legal protections; he was tactically driven. The next one was entrepreneurial and wanted to incubate startups, but there constraints on whether this organization was properly geared to ‘do’ startups. This left the faculty uncertain about how the product of their research was going to be used and rewarded. So my first role was to help refresh the dialogue between the commercialization group and the faculty, and recreate a sense of trust. Now, I’ve worked with them for ten years. The most recent President has balanced productivity with financial management, and has built relationships with businesses and other universities that have expanded their reach. It’s a happy case in which the board, which defined this organization’s mission, went from tactical questions about functioning as a cost center, to receiving a longer-term mandate from the university to generate profits and new opportunities for the faculty and become a source of innovation to the surrounding community.

What commitment should advisory board members make to the company?

You have to think of whether you, as a potential board member, are just doing this for a title on your resume and potentially some cash. That level of involvement might open some doors for you, but looking back after a year or more, you won’t be satisfied that your precious personal and professional time was used wisely. Instead, review how the board role will complement your professional focus, grow your skills and awareness, and give you enjoyment based on your interviews with management before joining, with respect to the organization’s potential for success and your personal chemistry with management. No one really enjoys being on a board that isn’t fun to interact with, and doesn’t deliver meaningful results.

In a sense, you can think of joining the board as a negotiation, much as you would negotiate the exact parameters of a job you are taking on.Where can you add the most value? How do you fit into the existing framework and how can you improve on it?

You’ve helped quite a few boards find their voice and become more effective. What’s the secret to this?

I begin in any situation with an open mind and perform an initial assessment. Talking with the key stakeholders will tell me what the possibilities are. For example, what’s the CEO’s underlying concern: “I don’t know enough about the current situation?” Or, “I don’t know enough about running a growing company?” Does the CEO know how to ask for help? I also consider how critical the current situation is for the company’s viability, what other resources they have available to go to, and the personal interplay of board members. You should take a history of the board – its mission at various points in time, members, and dynamics – just like you capture the symptoms and treatments of patients in a medical practice.

To maximize the chances of success, you want to spend enough time upfront to determine that the company, or the investors – whoever is sponsoring the board – believes enough in their value to invest in them. There has to be ‘pull’; management has to want to make it work. I can usually make this initial assessment in a few days to a week or two, depending on the participants’ availability. If the company decides to move forward with building or improving the board, we’re in an excellent position to hit the ground running. If not, the company still receives a useful outsider’s report on what the participants feel is working in terms of dynamics.

Once you’ve committed to the advisory board process, it’s time to put the top goals to paper and create a sense of focus if not outright urgency. Rules of engagement should be discussed upfront to make meetings and inter-meeting work proceed as desired. Recognize that both the strategic issues and the board chemistry are dynamic, and that change needs your attention during your interactions. As many business people feel, a talented and properly functioning team, in this case, a board, is the most important step in becoming a market leader, with tactical decisions following from the right mix of people. In the case of strategic advisory boards, you should lay the groundwork with the expectation that they will give you insights into your corporate and managerial potential, or new ideas for products, or highlight make-or-break risks to your business that you need to address. The goal is to look back after a year or more and see the big wins that the board has created as part of your team, not simply nice-to-have advice.

April 27, 2009

Building Effective Advisory Boards – Robert Fisher Interview #1

This week, I’m pleased to interview Dr. Robert Fisher about how businesses can create and manage effective, strategic advisory boards. The discussion extends my previous post about the unique role of advisory boards that fiduciary Boards of Directors and consultants don’t fill, and steps that companies often neglect when instituting advisory boards. They’re a strategic tool that has been covered only superficially elsewhere.

Robert Fisher, MD, MSPH, has advised top leadership at organizations including Kaiser Permanente,Robert Fisher Salesforce.com, Intuit, the National Institutes of Health, Charles Schwab, Inc., and a number of startups. He often takes the role of advising senior management so they can effectively align the strategy across the leadership team and deploy it across the organization. I’ve had the pleasure of partnering with Robert on several such projects. Robert currently serves as board member of the Science and Technology Corporation at University of New Mexico, is founder of the Center for Medical Democracy (a consortia of leading advisors on healthcare policy) and CEO of Fisher Leadership Strategy.

The interview with Robert was compiled over several hours of discussion, and is split into today’s entry about creating an advisory board, and a forthcoming entry on maintaining and evolving the board.

Robert, why do you think that the use of advisory boards is growing?

In the next 1 to 3 years, I see parts of the US economy getting back into growth mode and others needing to stay lean and targeted. This means more companies need to find ways to innovate and grow the top-line faster, but with a more conservative need for full-time employees. In this situation, you’re going to find a lot of highly qualified, senior talent, who can dedicate some time to a company, without the additional burdens and costs of either consultants or fiduciary boards.

When are advisory boards useful?

Advisory boards can be brought into save the day in a crisis, or bring in expertise that doesn’t reside in the company. They work in many situations, such as a company that has expertise in its domain but has to reach out for knowledge in an emerging area of importance (such as going green); a company that’s moving to another stage in size and maturity; a business that lacks independent validation; a family-run business that is moving toward a more public-facing stance; and where a CEO needs more experience to manage a new role or expand or contract the business. Also, advisory boards are of constant value to new entrepreneurs.

How do strategic advisory boards differ from fiduciary boards?

Fiduciary Boards of Directors carry another level of obligation. They evaluate the CEO’s and the company’s finances and performance. They also take on personal risks in terms of responsibility for shareholder performance. Fiduciary Boards of Directors are more difficult to staff, more expensive to run, and the general management talent often on these boards can’t always address the complex industry issues that face a business. They’re complicated.

Strategic advisory boards, with a group of industry specialists specific to a company’s situation, can operate as an adjunct or an alternative to a Board of Directors. And they can be agile. They work strictly on business outcomes and serve their sponsors.

Can an advisory board evolve into a more formal Board of Directors?

When a company is in a one to two year pre-IPO phase and will eventually require a fiduciary board, in the interim the advisory board can take on some of those functions. This includes monitoring performance metrics including financials, the sales and R&D pipelines and customer satisfaction. Final corporate oversight is still with the CEO, but that CEO needs to become more comfortable with an independent voice critiquing performance.

Some advisory board members can be groomed to join the Board of Directors, which gives the company an immediate history on its board, knowledge transfer, and also helps develop the skills of the advisor. I wouldn’t set expectations for this upfront, however. An advisory board is a perfect opportunity to test the contributions and chemistry of a board member.

How do you design the role of an advisory board?

You have to decide what kind of board you want. It’s a derivative of your business objectives. Is there a missing need in a company for big-picture, general-purpose input; is the company going through a change that requires experience that isn’t present available; is the company under duress or needing to make change in strategic direction; is the organization at a stage of growth where it needs to change its operations from tactical/early build to a more strategic mode? There are many more variations that I see all the time when helping companies design boards.

As companies recognize the need for an external advisory board, they also have to consider governance. Will the board be driven by its leader or will it operation on a more consensual basis? That decision should be made deliberately. You want to make sure that the way the advisory board works will integrate well with the company leadership and culture.

It’s rare that an advisory board has authority to execute or make decisions unless this is made explicit at the outset of a focused assignment. Advisory boards usually are about advice, not execution. On occasion, they can be enlisted to actively participate in your business planning. You can look for board members that are eager to spend more time with you, especially if they have time outside a full-time job responsibility right now, and define a project planning role. For example, a top level business plan or financial model may be needed in a sector they have managed; or a set of criteria for selecting a supplier needs to be outlined. Consider alternative motivation or compensation models to reflect the time your board members are putting in beyond regular group meetings.

Who needs to buy into the definition of the board role?

The very idea of an external advisory board has to be acceptable to the senior leaders of the company, especially if they’re not the only ones instigating the board. It is most effective when the unit leaders proactively engage the advisory board. It can be more difficult when a sitting Board of Directors or investors suggests it, and most difficult when the fiduciary board or investors imposes it on the CEO.

So, properly setting expectations among all the participants is essential, and well worth the time before the board starts up. If the board is being given some decision-making influence and not just recommendations, it’s good to take a look at the senior leadership and see why they would allow or invite this. It may signal trouble, though it can otherwise be a sign of outstanding vibrancy. But, advisory boards have their name for a reason. Changes to their role need careful consideration and at times push back by the advisory board if they are being pulled or drawn into areas where they don’t belong. It can be beguiling to an advisory board to be invited to certain tables. It can be equally important to refuse that invitation and raise the question of why it’s being asked. That mature push back can be a valuable role for senior advisory boards.

Of course, just as in a consulting project, the company considering creating and using advisory board input needs to buy into the fact that the board is worth the investment in sharing their ideas and issues fully, providing supporting data, and working through team interactions to achieve outcomes they wouldn’t have conceived of at the outset. Time invested creates a multiplier effect, that is breakthroughs, in terms of utility. This can transform the board from the tip of the spear into a modern, strategic weapon, like an F-16.

How does the advisory board’s dynamic with management change if it is instituted at the investors’ or its fiduciary board’s request?

It’s true that, on many occasions, the idea for the board will be initiated by someone other than senior management: typically the private equity/VC investors, or the fiduciary Board of Directors, or a higher level of the corporate structure. The reason can be as simple as these experienced people appreciating the big picture about investing in deep specialists. Or, there can be an element of oversight, to help develop management’s skills, provide independent input on strategy, or drive faster improvements. Generally when you talk to the investors, they are going to tell you what’s working at the company right away. So, it’s important for the investors or the spokesperson for a board, to get this on the table upfront as part of a situation assessment. This expectation-setting should be done collaboratively with management instead of what can be perceived as punitive or a vote of no-confidence on management. This way, the outcomes are more consistent and effective.

What happens when the board mandate includes helping management develop as leaders?

A frank discussion is best, involving all parties. When an advisory board is brought in to help a company through difficult times or in a crisis, it has to be clear if the current leader is being given a chance to turn around a situation, and how much time do they have to do that. Or, is the advisory board being brought in to take on some of the executive function of a company?

One nuanced example is when VCs are the initiators of a board for one of their portfolio companies. If they are investing in a new CEO, sometimes information doesn’t flow as freely as it should. A new executive wants to be sure they look good at the outset, or prove they are on the right track. It has to be made clear at the outset where the authority flows from and what are the rules of engagement. If an advisory board or consultant is brought it, it may be seem to be with the intention of solving a tactical problem, but an advisory board may be undermined because the necessary terms and conditions haven’t been met. Any company, VCs and others, are wise to make it clear upfront that their philosophy and business strategy includes carefully chosen strategic advisory boards and consultation. That way there are no surprises and senior leaders are less likely to feel like they are being found out or doing a poor job. No amount of preparation will eliminate all of those feelings, but wisdom says you talk about it early and before problems arise. Companies that are transparent do better at this than others.

Even if the board instigators and management aren’t completely frank with each other on all the goals, the advisory board and its leaders have to make their own assessment of the situation before they accept. Advisory boards are most often used as a positive resource and are a welcome addition. If they are explicitly or implicitly undermining current leadership, it can create a further problem. This can happen; business is a tough environment and external advisory boards need to be savvy when they say “yes” to an assignment.

Where a board instigator isn’t completely comfortable sharing their concerns about management, then the chair of the board or a deft moderator can be subtle about changing the expectations of the senior leaders, to help them develop during the process, especially if it’s their first time running a company. More senior leaders will often have worked with advisors, and are more open to them or are savvy enough to know how tonegotiate the advisory role up front. That’s what senior leaders do.

So the role of corporate culture needs to be understood first?

Absolutely. The question that precedes the creation of a board is: “What is it that prompts someone to say ‘I need help’ or ‘I don’t know enough’?” On a personal leadership level, if someone isn’t great about asking for help, they’re often times in trouble right off the bat, because no one has all the answers.

At a corporate level, if a board is recommended by corporate leadership for a division and its leader, what kind of company and environment allows a senior executive to say “you know, I’m not sure here. You want to give me more resources, bring them on.” That structural piece about learning and openness in an organization is a critical dynamic affecting an advisory board’s chance of success. That takes us back to my earlier comment on authority. You need a clear definition of expected responsibility, the authority and resources to execute against it. If those are aligned, you have a shot. If not, the board members should negotiate for it up front. My recommendation is if those three vital pieces can’t be negotiated successfully, walk away from the job. Something isn’t right.

Overall, how carefully do you have to plan for your advisory board to achieve significant results?

Scott, a lot of what I am talking about in building and using an advisory board gets overlooked because advisory boards are thought of simply as tactical projects. This isn’t rocket science but sometimes the issues are about as complex. For advisory boards to yield high return and avoid pitfalls, the things we’ve been talking about have to be considered at the outset and tracked to stay on course.

April 23, 2009

Synching Team Mindsets through Creative Invention

The health newsletter of Dr. Weil has an interesting piece on how musician’s brain waves synchronize when they play songs together (“Musicians’ Brain Waves Are Also in Tune“).  A researcher at the Max Planck Institute looked at electrical activity in the brains of pairs of guitarists and found that two regions of the mind show high degrees of brainwave synchronization when they play an improvised song together.

I’m a jazz/rock musician (guitar, drums, keys, a bit of bass and vocals) who long ago decided I’d be more productive applying my creativity to business collaboration and marketing.  In other words, I wasn’t even close to the brilliance some of my friends displayed as musicians, and opted for a business career plus a classic-rock band of mid-life guys in in my basement instead. But I’ve been continually fascinated by replicating the creative environment and satisfaction of music in business environments.

“In the Groove”

A takeaway from the study, in my opinion, is that creative, right-brain thinking creates an alignment of invention and emotion that makes it fun for people to work together and to create new, breakthrough ideas. I’ve only dabbled in classical music and the fine arts, but my hunch is that the more real-time improvisational the art, and the less structured the roles, the greater potential for mental alignment.  Jazz works this way, group improvisational comedy, probably dance, and even high-performance tennis doubles.

Happy Hours as Invention Opportunities

A way to leverage this is to find a time each week for people to set aside their pressing to-do’s, and just brainstorm about business opportunities. In one of my businesses, we made this the Friday afternoon pizza hour.  The really good ideas for business improvements and new products came also exclusively via these sessions – it was the only time where people had permission to think outside their roles, stop worrying about their obligations or speaking out of turn, and pose a zany theory to see where it led. One person was assigned to capture the notes (today I would commit them live to a Wiki, chat board, or feature-request log, and if you’re really ambitious in a distributed company, you could try having people contribute in a Twitter feed).  The drinks usually associated with happy hours are completely optional (and probably not permissible in many businesses). Jelly beans work fine.

Team Productivity Enhancers – What Works…

Three other discussion threads in the same vein:

– I’ve read reports comparing team productivity in two scenarios. In both, a team is given an important business challenge to resolve. In scenario one, a team is told to go off individually, spend an hour or more researching the issue and coming up with ideas, and bringing them to the table at the next meeting. In scenario two, the team is asked to work on the problem only in group meetings. The findings about which created greater results were, that while the individually-prepared team gave “good” responses to the problem more consistently, the team only interacting in groups created breakthrough solutions that addressed more fundamental issues or new opportunities. They were able to think beyond the initial problem and invent a vision.  This didn’t occur 100% of the time, so you are taking a bit of a chance with group brainstorming, but where you are creating new ideas without a driving deadline, this approach is much more effective.

– There has been a lot of talk about how Google gives their employees 20% free time to brainstorm and create/test new inventions (see the NY Times and Fast Company). Empowering people to not only create ideas, but to develop them is powerful. And, it’s relatively easy in the software industry, where the cost of pilot production and posting something to the Web is small. However, based on experience at another major West Coast software corporation, it can get out of hand. Too many individuals can start posting too many ideas for the company to manage; creating redundant projects and unsanctioned competition between divisions and executives; and spinning off lots of unprofitable activities. A few techniques allow you to balance innovation, entrepreneurship and directional control in these situations:

  1. First, document all ideas somewhere. The mere fact that someone’s idea is being recorded gives the mind positive reinforcement, and individuals/teams start taking more time to explore more ideas.
  2. Second, have a prioritization process for the ideas.  I think it’s too much for any individual to have complete discretion to pursue any ideas. The best approach is to have the inventor/evangelist need to demonstrate the business case for the idea before spending more than a few hours on it. This teaches engineers and other technical types to think about ROI as a prime organizational driver.  The education takes time but is well worth it for organizational productivity – again, aligning people in the same mindset. For other companies with a more time-pressed or hierarchical style, I’ve experienced monthly meetings for the entire department (or if small enough, the entire company) where the best ideas submitted that month are highlighted, the creator is given a small award/reward, and management commits to reporting back in 4 weeks on exactly what they will do with the idea.

– Third, there’s an interesting trend toward crowd-sourcing invention, where the vast resources of talented people on the internet are encouraged to contribute en masse to projects, ranging from highly-technical R&D and licensing projects (e.g. the company Nine Sigma), to online resources such as Wikipedia type databases of cost-saving solutions for small businesses.  There’s the potential to rethink business invention and the consulting industry through crowd-sourcing.  A colleague of mine, David Gusick, is pursuing this path at Extreme Collaboration.

“Have a Nice Day” – By Creating Something with Others

If all of the above is time much to absorb for your hectic business day, I leave you with this “stop and smell the roses” thought from Dr. Weil in his newsletter blurb above: “To my mind, [the Max Planck Institute] study highlights one of the great joys of playing music, one voiced by many musicians: a sense of self-transcendence. Playing music together creates a rare chance to step outside of ourselves and our small concerns and join our minds wholeheartedly with others in creating something no individual could make alone. Seen in this light, creating beautiful music is simply a wonderful byproduct of a larger reward – connecting deeply with other human beings.”

When the worlds of business and music collide.

When the worlds of business and music collide.

April 7, 2009

The Unique Role of Strategic Advisory Boards

Filed under: Experts — Tags: , — Scott Lichtman @ 1:47 am

Business advisory boards fill a unique role in strategy and implementation, whether your company is crafting a new product line, identifying cost-cutting measures, pursuing mergers and partnerships, or changing the mix of staff skill-sets. Private equity and venture capital firms especially the ROI of applying specialized executive talent to rev-up progress at an operating company, typically through a 100-day plan.

My conversations with growing (and struggling…) businesses, investment firms, lawyers, consultants and individual executives suggest that advisory boards are powerful, long-term strategic tools if you invest in managing them well. However, many firms don’t know where to find outstanding board members or relegate them to two-to-four meetings a year and a few phone calls. And, online advice about creating these boards is surprisingly generic (the highest-ranked advice-oriented links about ” strategic advisory boards, how to create” on Google are at AllBusiness.com and at Stengel Solutions).

Over several blog posts, I propose ways to use advisory boards better and interview leaders in this area.

Advisory Boards Are Not Your Usual “Boards” or “Consultants”

Strategic advisory boards are unique business support system. I define them as:

  1. Non-employee teams serving senior management
  2. With extensive experience and special expertise in sectors / functions that affect a business
  3. Meeting together over years, though they can and should focus on urgent business decisions over the course of several months for the best impact
  4. Compensated

They differ from:

  • Boards of Directors, or fiduciary boards, which take on the responsibility and liability of being responsible for the financial well-being of a company’s shareholders and for evaluating the chief executive. Boards of Directors are required for public companies, but they often are populated with influential individuals with powerful connections or access to investors, rather than industry specialists. BoDs also are expensive to staff, costing five-to six-figures per member per year, to offset the increasing amounts of time and risk fiduciary board members take on. For public companies with divisions that need strategic help, or private companies that need broader business input without being evaluated on a management hire/fire criterion, strategic advisory boards are more valuable.
  • Consultancies, whose pyramid-like team structure and billing rates make them suitable for critical projects of one to several months requiring deep analysis, but less so for ongoing guidance about growth opportunities and trouble spots.
  • Friends of the firm,” a category in which I include advisors who aren’t compensated for their input. Usually these relationships are developed ad hoc, based on chance meetings or existing relationships, where the company’s leader or evangelist convinces the businessperson to lend their name and be on a few phone calls in exchange for light cache. Though these individuals may receive an Advisor title on the web site, without careful selection of a group of complementary skillsets and a commitment to exploring issues at length with the firm, they usually have limited impact.

Achieving an Effective Board

High level considerations when building an effective and worthwhile strategic advisory board include:

  • Compensation model. I found, through my prior business Circle of Experts, that a modest amount of cash goes a long way in getting the attention of potential advisors, and a little equity on top (a fraction of a percent) keeps their minds engaged even when not attending meetings. The total cost of many advisory boards, meeting regularly, helping with multiple decisions in detail, can be less than that of a single senior employee and less than 1-2% of equity for a start-up.
  • Information sharing. Too many advisory boards meet semi-annually, and beyond that are contacted individually by phone. That’s because the company’s management team has a lot on their plate and lose track of the time investment needed to support the board. Anyone who has been in a consulting field realizes how critical an understanding of a business’s culture, it’s operating metrics, and competitive context is to making effective decisions. Therefore, advisory boards can benefit from a light “information portal” where they can read a summary of relevant news and data, post ideas for discussion online immediately or in-person at the next meeting, and track results of programs.
  • Evolution. For strategic advisory boards, some members will prove useful advisors over years, while others will be a best fit for specific projects. Both members and the company should explicitly discuss how their needs change and set 6 to 12 month reviews of their relationship. This makes it easier to switch to a looser “stay in touch” commitment , while introducing new talent.
  • Facilitation. Good advisory boards are comprised of a range of personalities, experiences that interact with management to come up with new solutions. But this isn’t easy. Think about staffing a consulting team where each member worked at a different firm, in a different location, put in an “all members are equal” starting situation. Instead, effective boards explicitly establish and regularly refine their rules of engagement, including scope of responsibility (for example, is management open to the board proposing new programs or highlighting company problems that management hasn’t put on the agenda), conflict resolution (including the acceptance of vigorous debate and approaches to re recognize and address personality conflicts), meeting agendas and between-meeting time commitments. This facilitation itself takes a special skillset and experience base.
  • Commitment. All of the above point to a shared commitment to exchanging information, researching opportunities, and improving process that has to occur during and between meetings. The board needs to be thought of as a strategic weapon, focused on top-of-mind questions, rather than a “nice to have on the website” marketing tool to be worth creating. In turn, some members will want to contribute even more time to your business, for example, editing a investment prospective or QAing a major implementation plan.

Next… Managing Board Dynamics

In my next post on this topic, I’ll be interviewing Dr. Robert Fisher, board member of the Science and Technology Corporation at University of New Mexico, Founder of the Center for Medical Democracy (a consortia of leading advisors on healthcare policy) and CEO of Fisher Leadership Strategy about his experience making boards work.

March 15, 2009

Outsourcing Sales & Marketing Support

Filed under: Outsourcing, Sales — Scott Lichtman @ 7:42 pm

Today’s economy makes it more important than ever for sales people to be productive. With fewer purchases happening, it’s simply not acceptable to waste any sales time on tasks that don’t involve interacting with businesspeople to create a new relationship, guiding a project or identifying new needs. This situation especially applies to sales people with limited corporate support (especially when they work from home), services franchise owners, independent consultants, entrepreneurs and business development professionals and sales representatives.

Freeing Up Your Day – From Inexpensive-to-Free Tools and Cost-Effective Support

I’ve been experimenting with a variety of free or inexpensive Web 2.0 tools and inexpensive, outsourced labor to eliminate as much unproductive time as possible from my work as a consultant.  The goal is to achieve 90% or more of my time on direct sales and creating business offerings for my clients.  The web tools will filter and deliver information to you, but it’s still a problem to screen out the irrelevant news, move that information to your personal file system, and fix administrative issues like PC problems or travel set up. With outsourced labor costs on Elance and Odesk dropping to $5/hour for simple tasks like data entry, and $15 to $50 for higher value business research, administrative assistant, and technical support, you can combine web tools with labor to complete your outsourced sales environment and achieve a compelling ROI – whether paid for personally or by your company.

Where do you lose selling and relationship management time?

Consider the following tasks. Ask yourself how much of your day they take up. Include in the estimate “disruption time” – that is, the extra time lost from getting to the heart of intense prospect/client conversations when you have to switch frequently to read emails of questionable value, enter data into systems, etc.

  1. Identifying qualified prospects through web research and online chat boards. Then, researching their industry, company situation and key contacts, as well as social network referrals you can use for a warm lead.
  2. Prioritizing your queue of new calls and follow-ups each day, and bundling together meetings at nearby companies when you travel (not to mention printing maps and booking hotels).
  3. Entering contacts and prospect/opportunity status in your CRM system.
  4. Finding quality networking events to attend, researching the attendees and following up with those you spoke to with an email thank you. Furthermore, finding events and webinars you and your company should speak at or have a booth for.
  5. Drafting proposals, especially locating a relevant template from similar work and entering basic information like the signatory contact.
  6. Staying abreast of your clients’ industry by reading email newsletters, picking quality blogs, loading podcasts on your MP3; then actually reading these sources to find the most relevant handful of stories each day that will improve your sales outcomes. This helps you sell more intelligently and come up with reasons to get back in touch with hesitant prospects, beyond “just checking in…”
  7. Entering expenses, fixing your PC/Mac or getting VoIP and VPN to work from your home office, re-ordering business cards and supplies.

I estimate that at least 1/2 of the week is consumed with these tasks by many salespeople, including productivity lost by getting back into focus after a disruption. Now, what if you had a virtual sales assistant that took care of almost all of these for you and you could just follow a queued-up daily plan for client interaction?

Let’s see how close we can get to this ideal situation. The next several blog posts will cover each of these areas and demonstrate how you can put together the tools yourself, or use a service to do it.

Finding networking and speaking opportunities

For example, I have been using the services of AtHandz, an Internet research outsourcing firm, to identify speaking event opportunities for an attorney client of mine that wants to expand her clientele.  After defining the industries and event criteria for desirable speaking slots, I’ve had AtHandz find compile event calendars and association lists; find over 50 events for which my client is a relevant speaker (and there should be no cost to speak); enter those events in a spreadsheet with details on the organization, event/speaking invitation process and contact; create Outlook business cards and draft email inquiries; and update my status by reading BCC’s of email correspondence. When there’s a positive email response, I make the initial call to the organization. If and only if there’s a mutual fit, my attorney client joins a second call to create the deeper relationship. It’s even much easier for your support staff to read about and filter networking events where you want to attend, meet people and collect business cards, than it is to find speaking opportunities.

Here’s a sample of a spreadsheet produced for me with speaking opportunities. The complete database includes 14 fields of information on existing events; lists organizations like alumni groups that are likely to seek speakers but don’t have a scheduled event yet; websites for event calendar compilations; and news sources that prompt me for new themes to speak on.

...portion of a comprehensive spreadsheet on speaking events

...portion of a comprehensive spreadsheet on speaking events

The next blog posts will look at the hardcore sales tasks of identifying and research prospects, setting up your daily call queue, as well as administrative support such as my quest for quality desktop PC support at under $25/hour.

Outsourcing for Marketing and Job Hunters, Too

The same approach to combining free or very inexpensive Web 2.0 tools with inexpensive, outsourced labor can also work for the marketing function and even for job hunting. Marketers need to engage in the conversations on the web which now involve their product, and filtering these conversations take a lot of time (even with Google Alerts). Job hunters, by definition solo workers, can have their job search time consumed by filtering through the email alerts from job boards, entering contacts into Outlook, tracking which openings to follow up with and reading news and articles with ideas for their future. In both cases, individuals need to spend just a little in order to raise their productivity and value quite a bit. Outsourcing marketing and job search support will be covered more in future posts.

February 25, 2009

Practical Tools for Law Firms to Expand their Clientele and Mindshare

Filed under: Law, Marketing, Social Networks — Scott Lichtman @ 3:14 pm

I’ve been asked recently to present to law firms on practical ways to improve their online presence, and combine this with traditional relationship building methods.   The result is this presentation, which describes specifically how to polish a LinkedIn individual or company profile, obtain speaking opportunities and be quoted in articles with minimal effort, and use surveys and low-key events that allow industry executives (who are your potential clients) to mingle.

The steps require between 1/2 hour and 2 hours a week for your partners who emphasize business development. The range depends on whether you want to be simply “credible” in your online presence, or “facilitative” in blending networking and outreach with online activities, as shown on my slide about the efforts & results continuum from “Simply Present” to “Online Leader.”

For those attorneys and practices that still are challenged to find time to build their presence and relationships, consulting services like my Vital Access make it easy and cost-effective to draft content and research speaking/article/outreach partners, while leaving the final sign-off and interpersonal communications to you.

The slides can be viewed here (the fonts in the original ppt are better aligned):

February 3, 2009

Getting a Message Across with Your Own, Quick Comics

Filed under: Marketing — Scott Lichtman @ 5:49 pm

I came across a fun, effective and underused site for marketing purposes. Bitstrips let’s you create the type of paneled comic strips that appear in newspapers or the New Yorker.

I created characters for myself and my wife in a minute each, then put us in a quick piece for a presentation I’m giving on the value of relationships in marketing and sales. There are options to insert famous characters like Barack, create an ongoing branded strip — your very own Dilbert, or put your creations on t-shirts.

In a world with too much clutter and not enough joy, a comic strip could be just the thing to share your ideas with the world.  My first creation is here and below.

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