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Form a board of advisers to help your company grow

Chances are, anyone running a business who is reading articles in this or other business magazines is open to exploring new perspectives. My co-CEO, Steve, and I have always been open to asking others for help — mentors, peer groups, seminar speakers and attendees, and anything we could glean from reading.

But the most powerful counsel came from our board of advisers, a group that has proven to be key to our business growth.

What is a board of advisers?

A board of advisers is a group of people who have experienced first-hand what you are seeking to do. You choose them because you believe their skills and knowledge can help take your business to the next level. We’ve had two formal boards of advisers during our journey. The first group was created with help from a friend/consultant. The second group we created ourselves. However they come to be, they should be focused on you and your business, in large part because they care about your success.

This group differs from a board of directors in that they do not have financial responsibility for the company. They are not consultants or those performing task-oriented services like accountants or lawyers. And they are not built to inflate CEOs’ egos.

How do you create a board of advisers?

Creating a board of advisers should start with a list of people with the skills and knowledge you are seeking. Prioritize your list and set up a meeting with potential board members. Be prepared when you meet to explain why you chose them and what your expectations are. Have it in writing.

In addition to knowledge and experience, consider how they fit together. Good chemistry between board members will be an asset and they will learn from each other.

Determine how the board members will be compensated and decide how often you will meet.

How should a board of advisers function?

Meet with your board of advisers outside of your office. Restaurants are great places if they have a separate room so you can include an informal meal after the meeting (where you will get even more advice). Send out a focused agenda before the meeting of three to five subjects you want to discuss and material to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Set the ground rules from the start by creating a charter. It lays out the expectations of board members in their role as advisers, and how often and how long you’ll meet. Ideally, you want a don’t-hold-back approach in an atmosphere of openness.

How do you get the most out of a board of advisers?

Listen and open your mind to their ideas. Decide what advice is best for you at this point in the life of your business. Summarize and send a recap to all board members with action items that you will tackle before the next board meeting. Also let them know the why or why not of your decisions. This clarity will help you more than them.

Harvey Nelson is co-founder and co-CEO of Main Street Gourmet, a custom manufacturer of frozen bakery products with distribution throughout the U.S.