The Importance of an Advisory Network & How to Build One

 In Best Practices, Professional Development

Whilst out on a run earlier this week, I started thinking about all the changes in our professional lives as we get used to our “new normal”. I thought about how much outside advice and counsel I have been seeking over the last few weeks. And then I thought about the tremendous amount of value I have gained from those interactions. My thoughts quickly expanded to reflect on the similar value provided by my professional advisory network throughout my career. It was a good feeling to know what’s carried me through previous questionable times is what is helping carry me through today.  

For me, the word network sparks thoughts of an awkward post-conference cocktail hour filled with name badges and insincere conversation that undoubtedly leads to LinkedIn requests about selling and employment. I know, harsh, but seldom do these interactions lead to a valued connection. When I write the word network I am referring to a trusted group of advisors with equal responsibility to provide input. It operates similarly to a company’s board of advisors, minus the formal commitment. With an advisory network, the main form of capital is an exchange of knowledge rather than an exchange of dollars.

I may not be great at formal networking events, nor are they kind to me, but I have been highly effective at building my own advisory network. If you share my opinion on traditional networking, perhaps the thoughts that follow will be useful to you? My advisory network consists of a small, highly trusted group of individuals that I’ve worked with or to whom I have been professionally introduced. It includes a diverse group of people whose opinions I trust. These are people with whom I have a two-way advice-giving relationship. For those looking to build their own advisory networks, consider these points: 

First and foremost, it can’t be take, take, take. As much as I value the opinion from members of my advisory group, I appreciate that one-sided counsel could make me an annoyance rather than an asset. I not only find it rewarding to help others but view providing advice in return as a responsibility as my own career progresses. My advice to you would be that when asking for advice, be clear that you are willing to reciprocate and offer your expertise at times when they might need it. Be proactive in reaching out when you suspect something they could use a helping hand.

Everyone is equal.  You should seek advice from a range of experience levels. I have retired and current C-level Executives to Demand Generation Directors and varying titles in-between in my advisory network. I find it extremely beneficial to get different perspectives from people at all different stages of their careers and with varying areas of expertise. Consider which roles and titles would provide good insight to you when evaluating business decisions, and seek out individuals from different stages of their career with these backgrounds.

There is no blanket approach. Never send mass emails asking for advice. Communication is best accomplished on a 1:1 basis and can range from a text message to a dinner conversation (these days perhaps over Zoom?). It’s important to acknowledge why each member is in your advisory network, the skills and expertise in which they are proficient, and the kind of questions or conversations you would ask of them. 

Quality over quantity. It really isn’t about amassing LinkedIn connections, if you cultivate the right people in your network. With a trusted group of 5-15 individuals, you will gain equal, if not more value than building a large, anonymous network. 

Recruit outside your current place of employment. I don’t include the people I currently work with as part of my advisory network. The ability to gain advice that is not influenced by organizational culture and politics, as well as gaining insights from other industries, is extremely valuable. However, I do share outside insights within Demand Spring so the company can benefit from what I’ve learned.

Since the early days of my career where I built websites and product catalogs, I have relied on this form of networking to influence my decisions and give me an outside perspective. On top of that, I have a trusted set of consulting companies that I have brought in to tell me the truth when I was on the client-side. Now more than ever, my network has been invaluable to me as I try to gain an understanding of what’s going on across different industries and functions, including scenario planning. Some questions I have asked are: What changes are you seeing in your industry? How are you forecasting sales this year? Where are you planning to spend as an organization? Where are Marketing and Sales investing? Can you lend some advice on scenario planning for both an uptick in business and a downturn? Should I use a flex network or hire right now? How should I change service offerings? How do you lead virtually in a troubling time?

Now is a great time to build up your own trusted advisory network. If you start to take the time to build one, I hope you find it as valuable and rewarding as I have. Maybe I should run more often…

 While the advisory we offer at Demand Spring is for hire, we do believe the relationships we build should be personal, customized, and provide continuous value. If you find your organization is in need of some strategic advice at the moment, we are at your service.

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