An advisory board serves an important role for academic departments, units, and programs: board members are key campus allies who provide leadership, visibility, and advice for your work. “Advisory Boards provide a mechanism for faculty involvement, ownership and buy-in to centers’ institutional change vision,” suggests Susan Gano-Phillips at the University of Michigan–Flint (2010). Usually consisting of campus leaders and advocates, an advisory board is an important “think tank” and source of ideas, expertise, and advice.
Lee Teitel (1994) explains, “Interest in advisory committees has increased in recent years as institutions of higher education and their programs face intense challenges in adapting to and meeting today’s needs.” Increasingly, universities and colleges are asking units to take on heavier workloads with the same or decreased staff. An advisory board can assist you and your staff with meeting these demands.
The board can offer a holistic vision for promoting your organization’s vision or strategic plan by having both faculty members’ (all ranks) and academic administrators’ voices heard at their meetings. Teitel further explains, “They can provide fresh insights, powerful connections, access to valuable resources, and excellent public relations.” The strength of the board and board member success rely on the ability of the unit head or director to connect with the interests of individuals and to relate the relevant issues to the department’s overall direction.
This article offers guidance for academic leaders to consider the function, creation, implementation, and refinement of advisory boards.
Creating your advisory board
Defining the purpose and raison d’être of your advisory board is a critical first step in creating your board. A common function of an advisory board is to provide strategic guidance and expertise where you need it most—with an emphasis on the word “advise.” Explore these questions to bring clarity to your thinking: Where do you need assistance as a leader? What kind of expertise do you need to tap, and who has it? Once you have a clear mission and set of goals for your board, you are on your way to writing out a “charge” to your board that articulates members’ roles vis-à-vis your mission statement and goals.
With a clear and specific function and purpose on paper, your next step is to identify and invite to the table those colleagues whom you wish to turn into strategic allies. Start by creating a “wish list” of movers and shakers whose individual skills and interests match your explicit board goals and collectively represent a healthy mix of backgrounds, personalities, and career stages. Remember to diversify your invitation list by including opinion leaders whose influence is less about their positions in the organization and more about the impact they have on stakeholders or constituents, or a valuable point of view they can bring to the discussion. Sometimes the high-profile candidates for your board are those individuals whose many commitments leave them with little time for your agenda, so cast your net widely and strategically. If you’re uncertain as to a suitable size for your board, err on the side of a smaller board (10 to 12 individuals) that you can increase later as your work within the board moves from theory to practice and your needs evolve.
When it’s time to approach your board candidates, give them the opportunity to mull over your invitation before you expect a response. Be explicit about the time commitment you are asking them to make and “ink it,” either in an email or letter. Give some thought to how you “package your story” and share your vision of your organization’s future and their role in it. Don’t just focus on what they can do for you—list the advantages this opportunity represents for them, such as networking across their industry or organization, learning new skills or best practices, and contributing to university stewardship or fulfilling service expectations. Provide core information as well, including the board’s mission and goals, how much time is estimated for board activities, and when and how often you will meet. If relevant, you might write the invitation yourself but arrange to have it come from your provost or president.
Strategies for nurturing your advisory board
Once you’ve pulled together your new board, consider how to set the tone for your meetings and interactions. If you invite contributions and comments that are both honest and collegial, be sure to emphasize those values and model them. Set up confidentiality rules for board conversations and create an atmosphere in which others can speak freely.
Select your agenda items carefully. Prioritize the issues that will benefit from board members’ advice and guidance and take advantage of their “outsider” perspective. Capitalize on the unique strengths that individual members can bring to the discussion or a project. Is one of your members a marketing professional or Web guru? How can you put each person’s expertise to work? If you’re not sure of someone’s entire professional skill set, ask him or her individually or provide a short forum at the first meeting so that person can take the lead.
Your advisory board members can also serve as advocates and ambassadors for your work within their own professional circles, so be sure to keep them abreast of news, events, and programs in your department in addition to soliciting their advice. When structuring your regular meetings with them, provide updates on topics from earlier meetings so they can see how their input influences or informs your thinking and decisions on key issues. You are not obligated to bow to their wishes or to defend your decisions if they do not perfectly align with board members’ advice, but you can demonstrate how their thinking or interests are enlarging your own perspective. Be thoughtful about how you prepare and conduct board meetings—send out materials for members to review ahead of time, prepare an agenda and stick to it, and remember to be a strong and responsive facilitator who makes good use of his or her time. Stay on time and stay on task.
Strategies for refining your advisory board
Your advisory board and its members are an evolving entity, so you want to tend to it accordingly. Create an annual or biannual cycle in which you can step back and evaluate the group’s work and functionality, paving the way for refinement and revision over time. Consider a staggered rotation for members in which new blood is invited on the board and veteran members step down (but not all at the same time). Find regular ways to solicit feedback from them about the effectiveness of the group and get their honest input about the group itself—an anonymous survey is an option, but you can also schedule the topic for discussion at a year-end meeting. Don’t let problems fester—if a member is not attending regularly or an issue keeps coming up and is unresolved, be sure to deal with it promptly and professionally. And remember to reward and thank your board members. You might issue annual letters of thanks (with a copy to their supervisors) and recognition of service for their portfolio or annual review, list them prominently on your website or annual report, and make a fuss over members who have completed their service with you. If you’re not sure, try asking them what type of thanks and recognition are meaningful to them.
The bulk of the research on advisory boards is completed in business and industry contexts, with a focus on how boards can improve profits and organizational effectiveness. However, creating and maximizing the effectiveness of an advisory group can be a boon for academic departments and programs. Christine Comaford-Lynch (2006) offers, “We all can benefit from advisors—they’re the friends from the trenches who’ve been on the business battlefield longer than we have. Or they’re friends who’re from a different industry or field who provide a unique perspective. . . . You need advisors to bounce ideas off of, to provide a reality check, to tell you when you’re about to mess up, to confide in when you’re alone at the top of the organization or department.” It can be lonely at the top for academic leaders. Your advisory board can help alleviate that isolation in terms of strategic thinking, peer advocacy, and management of the natural ebb and flow of your organization’s growth and development.
Comaford-Lynch, C. (2006). How to Create an Advisory Board (In Six Easy Steps). Mighty Ventures, LLC.
Schroeder, C. (2010). Coming in from the Margins: Faculty Development’s Emerging Organizational Development Role in Institutional Change. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.
Teitel, L. (1994). The Advisory Committee Advantage. Creating an Effective Strategy for Programmatic Improvement. ERIC Educational Reports.
Patty Payette is the executive director of Ideas to Action and associate director of the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Louisville. Allyn Shaw is the associate director of faculty and organizational development and the director of leadership development programs at Michigan State University.