I just wrapped up two years as a part-time Advisory Board member with STEM Sports®, an educational product company in Arizona. While I was there, I brought in an OKR framework to help the company identify and align on goals, as well as analyzing and advising on their sales cycle, digital curriculum, and marketing and operation plans in conjunction with the organization’s 4-year strategic plan. During quarterly meetings, I and five other board members reviewed company performance and strategy, and advised on upcoming initiatives.

STEM Sports® is a lean operation with less than ten employees, so a multi-person advisory board might sound a little counterintuitive, but I think it did exactly what it needed to do for the company, providing fresh eyes, connections, and the support to galvanize the next several years of the company’s growth.

And, it let me learn. What were my skills doing? Where did they fall short? Where did I need to alter my normal approach? Here are 6 key rules I learned for success on a board of advisors.

Remember: An advisory board is NOT a board of directors. They are not (typically) shareholders. They do not control the company. They advise those who do control the company on topics that can increase effectiveness or influence strategic direction.

Rule 1: Speak Up!

Or as it’s been said to me: “bring an opinion”. You aren’t here to cast votes, you aren’t here to satisfy tax requirements by sitting in these meetings: you are here to have an opinion. I put this rule first because it’s the hardest to get over. A lot of us will go into a room full of strangers and clam up. Zoom calls make this worse.

As with the old story of Percival and the Fisher King, many of us have been taught not to ask the perceived “rude question” - and yet, the right question in a group of people can stimulate discussion, open the door to solutions, even illuminate a whole new strategy nobody had thought of before.

Which, of course, is part of why you’re here.

Rule 2: Get to Know Your Peers, Right Away

You are on a board of advisors. Plural. You will have peers who are often selected for different specialities than you, and quite often it will be hard to naturally feel “at home” with them unless you already know one another. This discomfort induces further silence and lack of curiosity, which leads to ineffectiveness as a Board.

So - take the initiative to get to know your fellow advisors. Again, Zoom makes this harder. If you can’t do real coffee, do a virtual one. Tell your fellow advisors that you’d like to take 45 minutes (yes, 45!) to just hear their story and share a bit of your own. Take it as a bit of faith that somewhere in there, you’re going to spark a connection, whether it’s about hobbies, places you’ve been, work history, family stories. I’ve seen it work again and again.

You need that connection to have enough trust to have honest conversations both in and out of the formal meetings.

Rule 3: Lead With Curiosity

If you’re picked to be an advisor, you already know that there are things you don’t know. Your knowledge, your ability to contribute, your understanding of the machinery underpinning the entire enterprise you’re here to advise on will all hinge on a single factor: your ability to really listen.

Listening isn’t just keeping your ears open while someone talks. It’s getting them to talk. It’s navigating any natural reticence with good questions and your own candor. It’s providing context to your questions so that folks understand and trust where you’re coming from.

And it’s true, honest curiosity at heart - not just checking a box - a curiosity that wants to know why, that wants to form the bigger picture as to how things interoperate. And, because you know how complex our world is, you don’t assume you know these things. You ask. You check your thinking. You check the thinking of others. Until you’re sure.

Rule 4: More Gets Done Outside of Meetings

The things we call “meetings” can end up being largely theater. Useful theater, but they are staged; they’re a performance. If there’s an agenda, people speak to the agenda and attempt to defend it. If there’s not an agenda, individuals will treat it opportunistically and social dynamics will produce the usual elements of dramaturgy within that context of multiple people watching.

I don’t know why it works that way, but it does - you know the difference between the tone of a conversation between two people and the way it changes when you add a third. Or a half-dozen. What this leads to is a great deal of off-stage thinking and talking between individual splinters of participants before, after, and all around these formal meetings, since everyone instinctively knows not everything got said in the meeting itself.

My advice: do this off-stage work deliberately. Look up the concept of Nemawashi; lay the groundwork for your ideas with a few others outside of meetings first. Be open when others want to have pre-meetings with you. Everyone’s testing out their thinking and wants more candid feedback than they can be assured of in a formal meeting.

Rule 5: Offer to Help

Goes without saying, you think? We all want to be helpful, sure. But what makes us step forward and genuinely offer? Again, cast your eye out among the Brady Bunch-like set of Zoom windows on your next call when one of the participants asks if “someone” could volunteer to help with a problem.

In those moments, a lot of us hold back because we think we’re not the right one. Surely, someone must have more expertise than me? Someone looks better on paper? Someone’s got an in, somewhere, that I’m missing? Don’t they?

Probably not! Here’s my advice: say yes before you’re sure. Say yes before you know you’re ready. We live in a world of too much to do and not enough people to do it, so just volunteer. You can be honest about your level of expertise. If it’s not much, either they pick someone else, or you get to learn. Either way, the company you serve gets an asset.

Rule 6: Have a Specialization

At the time of your career when you’re generally a good candidate for board service, you will likely have some varied experiences - that’s a lot of what companies are looking for; the ability to continue to be useful as the problem surface of the company ebbs and flows, not to be too locked in to one way of thinking or operating.

However - you’re also joining a group of other professionals and your best combined utility as a group is to try to see the company’s problems and assist from several uniquely specialized angles with not too much overlap. Creative conflict is important and useful on a board, redundancy or butting heads over similar territories is not.

As you come to know the others on the board, learn their areas of both skill and interest, and consider where there might be room for your particular skills and interests to shine through. Don’t let it be unsaid - have an open conversation about it, make it a goal to have your specialization known to you and to others, so that your name comes to mind when folks have particular problems or opportunities you can help with.

Wrapping It Up

There’s so much you can do to help on a board. From coaching, to introducing contacts, to strategy advising, it is one of the ultimate mixes of soft and hard skill.

If you feel like these six rules are a little on the soft side, you’re right: my take is that by virtue of its unique supporting role to the dynamics of human beings that lead a company, the nuances of communication and connection are incredibly important to advisory board service.

Common wisdom claims that soft skills can’t be taught. Common wisdom is wrong. We all can learn, and all can be learned. Reach out if you’d like to know a bit more!