Who are you including on your advisory board?
At a recent event in Portsmouth, audience members were educated on how to build an advisory board for their startup that will add value. The day of the talk, I tweeted about boards that “show, and say no,” and I come back to this idea a lot lately as I listen in on the startup conversations occurring in the state.What does “show, and say no” mean? Is it possible to build a board that adds value and isn’t a cookie-cutter of every other board? Can you develop a board, or is it something that just happens?A board that “shows” requires members that are not overextended. We know the adage about the productive 10 percent, when to ask a busy person, etc. When putting together a group of people it can be a hard balance. You want members who are plugged in to the industry, the community, or the scene. At the same time, you want members who can prioritize your phone call when a slew of other messages cross their desk. You want members who will be recognized by those who hold access you might need — be it to capital, resources, or talent — but who are not so overexposed people will feel they already know the ideas you have to offer.And you want members who will think first of your company when they hear an opportunity that fits your sector. It seems harder than it should be, doesn’t it?Building for differenceThe good news is that the “say no” elements actually might be easier to plan for, and getting that right might set you up for the “show” qualities mentioned above.How so? Behavioral science has continuously identified the risk associated when like-minded people share in decision-making. Boards are groups of people, and people in groups are subject to conformity and groupthink. This is precisely what a startup does not need, especially one that is headed by a charismatic and energetic founder.What could be so bad about this combination — a driven leader and a group of advisers that sees the world in a similar manner?Sure, executing a project idea would go smoothly, but seeing that obstacle in the way may be harder for such a board. The reason: When backgrounds are similar, there is less variance, not only in output, but in process.With less variance in the process there are fewer opportunities for dissent. And dissent is a vital part of effective decision-making. If you find yourself having conversations with potential board members and backing away from inviting that person with a different background, perspective or approach, it might be worth a few more conversations.What do you need your board to do? How long do you want to work with this current group? It may not be that you need a half-dozen very different individuals — in fact, conformity research demonstrates that even one dissenting voice can improve accuracy and effectiveness of a board.So, how do you build for difference? First, stop going to the same well everyone else is drinking from. Meaning, skip the alumni reach-out, the tweet to attract notice, and the industry luncheon. (OK, maybe you don’t need to skip this, but you will need to extend beyond this if you are serious about difference.)Think about how others would describe you or your background. Identify the affinity groups that would counter those you belong to. Are you a man with a business model you think will attract athletes? Great — pick some guys who have a background in the sporting industry, but maybe reach beyond this group to find the women business owner or nonprofit director who has experience connecting with an audience, managing talent or boosting the arts in her community. Anchor this contributor with someone whose age cohort differs from you and other members or who isn’t from your backyard.How does this lead to a board that “shows”? This approach of building difference energizes not only your startup, but your board itself. People are drawn to creativity, challenges and learning. And people see this more in groups with members that are different from them.If you build a board that offers these qualities, your members will be motivated to stay plugged into your business and their board duties. And you might learn something too.Loretta L.C. Brady, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College, is the founder and principal of BDS Insight, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.