Advisory Boards: Burden or Boon?

I talk to people all over the country about advisory boards as part of my work on employer engagement, and I have learned that there are a lot of boards out there that are not serving their purpose. Most states require their CTE programs to have them, which includes a mandate to meet at least once or twice per year. And when you make something a requirement, some people are going to see it as a burden.

How does this “burden” mentality play out? With minimal effort: Getting the minimum number of attendees and doing as little work as possible to fulfill the mandate, which usually means a one-hour speech on what’s happening with the CTE program. Industry partners just sit and listen, leave, and then come back to do it again in six months or so.

When handled like that, it’s true that there’s no value to the advisory board. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: We don’t see value in this, so we’ll make sure there’s no value in this. And that’s a shame, because a well-run advisory board is the single most valuable partnership model you can pursue.

More than anything else, business partners want to share their expertise with you; in an advisory board setting, that means giving you advice (hence the name!). They don’t want to come and listen to you for an hour; they want to be a part of your operation, helping to inform the work you do by telling you what’s happening in their businesses. They want you to know who’s hiring, what kinds of positions, and what kinds of knowledge, skills, and experiences applicants need so you can shape your program accordingly. And they want to tell you what’s working for them in terms of finding and training talent so you can learn from their experiences.

But if you don’t ask – if you make it clear you want to talk about you, and not listen to them – they’re not going to tell you any of that. If you make it clear that your advisory board is really a shut-up-and-listen board, then that’s what they’ll do.

So, for those who see their advisory boards as a burden, let me give you a challenge.

Before you send out invitations to your next advisory board meeting, sit down with your best business advocate. Decide on one or two questions you really want to know the answers to, things that would most help you prepare students for their future occupations. Send the invitations along with those two questions. When you hold the meeting, introduce your business advocate and let her or him run the meeting, focused entirely on answering those questions. And listen. I can almost guarantee it will be less work than you’ve ever had to do for a meeting; it will also be the most valuable meeting you’ve ever had.

Good luck – and let me know what happens ([email protected])!

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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