9 Smart Money Ideas to Get Your Business Off to a Great Start in 2018

From consolidating debt to putting a succession plan in place, here are nine ways you can ensure your business is well-positioned for 2018.

Smart companies realize three things:

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    No. 1: The importance of making their balance sheets healthy.

    No. 2: How to access the extremely low cost of available capital.

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    No. 3: Recognizing the demand in our economy is rising at a healthy 3% growth. 

    All three of these realizations will help your company to maintain or expand market share.  

    Now is a good time to review, correct and forecast your financial strategies to better leverage your firm for growth. This year-end review and forecast is important, due in part, to the changes underway on Capitol Hill and new federal policies on finance and regulations. The federal changes will have impact on most all businesses, no matter the size.

    Here are nine ideas that could help your 2018 get off to a roaring start.

    Idea No. 1: Taxes. The Big Elephant in the room. Contact your accounting firm to ensure you are taking full advantage of all your options to reduce taxes based on the new federal tax laws currently underway in Congress.  This also applies to your personal taxes.

    Idea No. 2: Investments. For most, this has been a robust year in the investment arena.  Review with your investment advisor your yearend picture to determine if there is a need to make any changes to better reflect your risk in the market on both the company and personal investment side. The deadline for your investment changes is Dec. 31.

    Idea No. 3: Insurance. Look over all company and personal insurance policies to ensure your assets are fully covered. These policies could include:

    • general liability insurance
    • professional liability insurance
    • business owner’s policy
    • directors and officers insurance
    • data breach
    •  property insurance
    • commercial auto insurance
    • worker’s compensation
    • homeowner’s insurance
    • renter’s insurance
    • life insurance
    • personal automobile insurance.

    Idea No. 4: Debt consolidation. Interest rates have been at historically low rates. Look at all outstanding loans, consider consolidating outstanding notes for a better rate. Credit cards continue to offer great rates for as low as 0% until 2019 when you consolidate debt from other credit card companies. Make sure you understand the fine print. Analysts forecast the Fed rate will increase before year end, and again slightly in the new year, however, will remain low in 2018, following retiring Janet Yellen’s past performance.

    Idea No. 5: New capital acquisition. Growing companies require more working capital for operations, inventory and equipment.  It takes money to make money. While conventional banks have kept interest rates attractively low, overall 12-month business loan growth is at the lowest since 2013. But they are still lending. Consider reviewing alternative financial options including interviewing potential private equity or venture capital partners, joint ventures/alliances with compatible companies that compliments your business strategy, large corporate sponsorship or grant funding,  public/private government sponsored funding. The beauty of preparing your 2018 business plan and forecast, is that you will be able to strategically see where and when you need funding. When you do sit down to negotiate new financing, most capital sources will ask to review many of the items listed here. Know where your realistic capital options are, including the requirements to secure the capital, before you need it.

    Idea No. 6: Leases. Capital spending on equipment leasing in the first three quarters of this year has risen at 7.3% annual rate, fastest in the past three years. Instead of outright purchasing equipment—whether a $5,000 video-conference system or a $500,000 injection molding machine—seriously consider leasing rather than tying up this capital that could be better used elsewhere. Additional leasing benefits include $1 buyouts at the end of the lease and the ability to upgrade equipment during the term of the lease to take advantage of newer technology platforms.  The trend today is for  larger equipment to have  built-in computer and artificial intelligence.

    Idea No. 7: Owner draws and distributions. Review with your CPA how your firm is paying out draws and/or distributions and how this impacts your overall tax picture.  The difference between a draw and a distribution is significant for tax reporting purposes. A sole proprietor or single-member LLC can draw money out of the business—this is called a draw. It is an accounting transaction, and it doesn't show up on the owner's tax return. A distribution or distributive share, on the other hand, must be recorded (using Schedule K-1) and it shows up on the owner's tax return. Further, depending on your tax bracket and forecasted 2018 compensation, determine if it would be better to take money out in 2017 or 2018. 

    Idea No. 8: Succession plan. Discuss and review any needed business succession planning updates. During the year were there retirement events, disability or death of an owner or other foreseeable events affecting the company? Review age of the owner(s) and family stage, business stage, size of the business, direction of the business and future leadership. Ensure that succession viability, retirement exit strategy, transition strategy in place.  In the event of death or disability of an owner, take into consideration tax planning, family law considerations, shareholder’s agreements and determining the selection a successor and future management to liquidation of assets or sale of business.

    Idea No. 9: Estate plan. Review and update your will to reflect current situation. Consider a trust if you have property and you don’t wish to have your survivors to go through the sometimes long and arduous task of going thru probate court.  Review and update health care directives, financial powers of attorney, beneficiary forms, protect your children’s property, estate taxes, funeral arrangements and expenses. Store your documents with your attorney-in-fact and/or your executor, the person you choose in your will to administer your property after you die. You will sleep better knowing your wishes are in place.

    Marsha L. Powers, a finance and strategic development professional, author, entrepreneur and investor is the founder of Powers Advisors and Shale Capital Resources. She has been a contributing writer on Finance for Crain’s Cleveland Business for nine years. Her management consulting areas of expertise includes finance – ranging from senior debt, government finance programs to private equity, market strategy, operations, marketing communications and economic development.  She’s a recognized award-winning leader with proven strategic direction and leadership to over 1500 companies, from early stage to Fortune 50 companies. You can reach Marsha at (216)965-3633, marsha@powersadvisors.com and www.powersadvisors.com to learn more about how she can help your company succeed.

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    Next up: Active Shooter Planning: 9 Things You Must Include in Your Emergency Action Plan

    Active Shooter Planning: 9 Things You Must Include in Your Emergency Action Plan

    It’s everyone’s worst nightmare and something we never expect will actually happen in our own places of business. But understanding the warning signs and having an effective plan in place should an emergency like this arise, can help reduce fears and prepare your workforce as much as possible.

    Every business, no matter the size or type, is a potential target for an active shooter. It can happen anywhere including malls, businesses, movie theaters, schools and places of worship. As a business owner or manager, you should have a thorough understanding of the warning signs, preparations that need to be taken, and a plan for actions and responses in the event you are ever confronted by an active shooter.

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    The FBI conducted a study of active shooter incidents that occurred from the years 2000-2013. In order for the incident to be classified as an active shooter incident, there had to be four or more deaths or people who were injured from that incident. Within the13-year study, an average of 11.4 incidents occurred annually. During the first seven years of the study, there was an average of 6.4 incidents and it increased to an average of 16.4 over the last seven years of the study.

    According to the FBI, 2014 and 2015 each saw 20 active shooter incidents. That’s more than any two-year average in the past 16 years, and nearly six times as many as the period between 2000 and 2001. Seventy percent of incidents occurred in either a commerce/business or educational environment. And 60% of these incidents ended prior to police arriving. That means you must know what to do in the event you are confronted by an active shooter incident at your business.

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    Be knowledgeable and prepared

    Understanding an active shooter is a good starting point. An active shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. Often, they use fir­­­­earms and there may be no pattern or method to their selection of victims. 

    An active shooter looks for ease of movement that allows them to just walk into a business. This means a retail store, movie theater or any other business that has open public access is a prime target for them. The reason for this is that they can enter the building without having to go through security checkpoints. So, while your business may need to maintain open access there are actions you can take to prevent shootings and to know how to properly respond in the event of a shooting.

    It is also important to understand that an active shooter can be either an employee or someone off the street. While you have no influence on a stranger, it is easier to deter an employee shooter because they have contact with co-workers and managers on a daily basis. There is a personal relationship that may work in your favor. Keep in mind that active shooters may be motivated by external circumstances such as marital issues, custody issues or financial issues, as well as by workplace issues.

    Shooting events are not spontaneous…they require planning. They are unpredictable and evolve quickly, often taking only ten to 15 minutes and usually before law enforcement arrives. The shooter plans knowing the layout of the business and determining its security and access features. They then select their target by deciding on a favorable feature or convenience that makes it easier for them.

    Planning is crucial for handling an active shooter situation

    One of the first actions you should take is to assemble a planning team that works with your HR department. If you are too small of a business to have an HR department, you still need to develop a plan. The role of this team is to teach employees how to identify potentially dangerous behavior and to develop a method to report any behavior issues.

    To best prepare your staff for an active shooter situation, create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), and conduct regular training exercises. Create the EAP with input from your human resources department, your training department (if one exists), owners / operators/ managers, and always include local law enforcement and/or emergency responders. 

    This is where your preparedness comes into play. Determine the best way to protect your own life and everyone around you. People will follow the lead of employees and managers who are trained for the situation. Your EAP should include the following nine things:

    Safety tip No. 1: A preferred method for reporting emergencies.

    Safety tip No. 2: An evacuation policy and procedure that includes emergency escape procedures and route assignments (i.e., floor plans, safe areas). Leave personal items behind. Keep your hands visible. Do not move anyone who is wounded. Follow police instructions.

    Safety Tip No. 3: A crisis plan including contact information for, and responsibilities of, individuals to be contacted under the EAP, as well as designated spokespeople who have been trained to talk to the media or others.

    Safety tip No. 4: Information concerning local area hospitals (i.e., name, telephone number and distance from your location).

    Safety tip No. 5: An emergency notification system to alert various parties of an emergency including: Individuals at remote locations within premises, law enforcement and area hospitals.

    Safety tip No. 6: Mock active shooter training exercises and information on how to recognize and react to the sound of gunshots. Training exercises are the most effective way to train your staff to properly respond to an active shooter situation.

    Safety tip No. 7: Information on how and where to hide out. Lock doors and block with heavy furniture if possible. Hide under furniture or in closets. Stay quiet and as calm as possible.

    Safety tip No. 8: At least two evacuation routes that you post on the premises.

    Safety tip No. 9: A plan to stay aware of indications of workplace violence and take immediate actions in an attempt to avert any workplace violence situations.

    Taking these steps and preparing for workplace violence and active shooters will help keep everyone safe in the event of a confrontation.


    President, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Speaker, Trainer, Corporate Security Expert Timothy A. Dimoff, CPP, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Inc., is a speaker, trainer and author and a leading authority in high-risk workplace and human resource security and crime issues. He is a Certified Protection Professional; a certified legal expert in corporate security procedures and training; a member of the Ohio and International Narcotic Associations; the Ohio and National Societies for Human Resource Managers; and the American Society for Industrial Security. He holds a B.S. in Sociology, with an emphasis in criminology, from Dennison University. Contact him at info@sacsconsulting.com

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    Next up: Are You a Strategically Valuable CIO

    Are You a Strategically Valuable CIO

    Information technology has the potential to transform an enterprise and drive performance to unseen levels. But it’s not just about deploying new technologies or keeping servers running or ensuring everyone’s email is working. 

    Information technology has the potential to transform an enterprise and drive performance to unseen levels. But it’s not just about deploying new technologies or keeping servers running or ensuring everyone’s email is working. 

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    To really drive the enterprise, IT must be business partner and be integrated within business operations. While that’s easy to say and many companies purport to do so, many are not successful. 

    Matt LoPiccolo, Swagelok CIO, shares his experiences with achieving incredible synergies between information technology services, operations and strategies with enterprise planning. Ensuring the strategic value of IT to Swagelok has helped the company achieve incredible growth results and helped position it as a market leader in multiple areas. 

    Listen here.

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    Next up: Be the Best CEO You Can Be

    Be the Best CEO You Can Be

    You are the Majority Owner, so you are the CEO. Right? Not necessarily. There are generally three paths to majority ownership of a company. You started it. You acquired it from an unrelated third party. You bought or inherited it from a related party.

    You are the Majority Owner, so you are the CEO. Right? Not necessarily. There are generally three paths to majority ownership of a company. You started it. You acquired it from an unrelated third party. You bought or inherited it from a related party.

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    Each path has some common similarities and differences. The goal is to be an effective CEO and it is worth exploring what each of the paths take. We will begin by examining what it takes to be an effective start up CEO. 

    Path 1: You Started the Company 

    Pre-Check

    If you started the company, chances are you’re automatically the CEO because startups rarely begin with a fully developed management team. Many startups are the activation of a dream or invention by highly motivated people who may or may not have sufficiently developed skills to build, guide and direct the growth of their firms.

    Some inventors fall into this category. The story of  The Polaroid Land Camera Company illustrates the problems of the inventor as the CEO, Dr. Ed Land, the founder, was a pure inventor. He lacked most of the skills and mindset to become the effective CEO needed to drive his company. His investors eventually realized Dr. Land would never be the person to drive the company to its zenith, and they relegated him to his laboratory, trotting him out once a year to show off his latest creative products. If he had remained at the helm, it would never have been the success it was in the mid-20th century.

    Path 2: You Inherited or Bought the Company

    If the company you have started isn't your first rodeo (i.e., you have been the majority owner/CEO of another firm or firms before), you have a leg up on some of the things that an effective CEO needs to do. Unfortunately, most CEOs get to some semblance of effectiveness through trial and error, with a lot of emphasis on the error part of the equation. There is no handbook with checklists available to prescribe the exact ways to get to effectiveness, but experiences as part of a key management team help in making decisions about what to do and what not to do and when to do them.

    I think it helps you become the CEO or owner of your company if you have done three things: 

    Get an education in a field appropriate to the industry in which you will be. While an English major education might be good intellectual capital, that education is unlikely to provide you much intelligence for running your manufacturing company.

    Get a job with a company in a field related to your intended industry. Learn from seasoned professional managers how they do business, make decisions and decide policy. That usually means working for a public firm or a large private firm. Perform to a level that earns you one or more promotions. It is quite useful, by the way, to try to operate in different functional areas so you get a semblance of the bigger picture that is so important to the growth and success of any firm, including yours. 

    Get a job in a smaller firm in the industry you intend to enter. See how the CEO of that firm does things. Compare your experience there with your experience in the larger firm. Particularly for those who are going to be inheritors of a family business, this is important. If all you learn about running a company is the way your family does it, you are going to need significant outside advice to work your way through the minefield of your business landscape.

    Path 3: You Acquired the Company from an Unrelated Party

    The problems of the startup CEO are similar, but not the same, for the "Acquired It" CEO. Unless you have experience with the company you purchased, you are starting fresh but with an existing management team and employees you know little about other than what you have been told and what your due diligence in the acquisition process has told you. The good news is you have a management team and employees who don't have to be built from ground zero. The bad news is you have a management team and employees who already know the company, its history, climate, culture, etc., before you try to imprint your own values and culture on the entity you acquired.

    One of several acquisitions I have been involved with illustrates the conundrum described above. The CEO, in his terminal illness days, brought in a new CEO who had related industry experience and a solid track record of success in his prior employment with a professionally managed firm. This was a last-ditch effort to sell the company because he had offered favorable terms of sale to the four key managers (I called them the "Gang of 4") only to have them reject the offer because, frankly, there was not an entrepreneurial manager in the group. That led to a two-year war with the management team where they undermined him and thwarted progress. The dying CEO was smart enough (thanks to good advisors and legal advice) to put into place a golden parachute for the new CEO which would have made "the Gang of 4" finally realize their financial future was closely tied to this CEO's and the firm's success. I might add this firm was successful before the transition and the "Gang of 4" could have purchased the firm with its own cash reserves without hurting the capital/cash flow needs of the business. Sometimes things aren't rational!

    End note on the story above: The new CEO gradually overcame the "Gang of 4" resistance, added key management talent, repurposed the roles of the gang members and continued to build the business. Many of the things he did are integrated into this blog. The company got substantially larger, profitably, and was acquired by a major player in its industry a few years ago for a payoff several times larger than the value of the company at the time of the aborted transaction. 

    Key Actions of the Effective CEO

    There are three critical actions that must take place if you are to become an effective CEO, regardless of whether you are the starter, the acquirer or the inheritor. They are:

    1. Creating a clear vision of what you want the company to become.

    2. Developing a clear articulation of the core values you espouse to guide the execution of that vision.

    3. Building a cohesive team to support that execution. 

    Clear Vision

    A clear vision of what you want your company to become over a specified time line is the starting point. It is your company, after all, so what do you want it to look like when it is finished?

    If you started the company because you decided that because you know how to do something, you can run a business that does that something (Gerber's definition of a "technician"), you might have only traded a job for a job because having a technician's vision does not translate well into creating and developing a successful company.

    Core Values

    You need to establish early on the core values on which you want to build your company. This is true whether it's a startup, acquired company or inherited organization. This might be the most important part of what you need to do to create a successful firm. If your core values are not clearly built and defined, the rest of the development process will be flawed and could result in a lot of trial and error. 

    If you are acquiring or inheriting a company, a substantial change in already established core values will be problematic. Most established firms inherently resist change and it might not be a pleasant experience. If you are a startup, you start with a clean slate, but that creates its own problems unless you have spent some quality creative time defining what you want your company to be and become.

    Build a Team

    You need to build a team capable of executing the vision and the core values. Again, this is problematic for all situations. The startup rarely has the right people to grow the firm because of limited resources and time. The acquisition firm will find a lot of the incumbents unworthy or inadequate after applying Gino Wickman's "Traction People Analyzer" (Gets It, Wants It, has the Capacity to Grow) evaluation of the existing team. The family business equation gets more complex many times since relatives often occupy positions in the firm are there because they have the right last name, not necessarily the right talents. Changing that, regardless of the ownership circumstance, is rarely easy or painless. Getting the right people on your bus is critical to venture success. 

    You might have noted to this point I have not used the words "leader" or "leadership" even one time. The most effective CEOs lead by inspiring their team to execute coordinated strategies and plans consistent with the company vision and  core values. Thus, leadership is implicit in all that has been stated in this treatise.  

    Getting Help

    The effective CEO addresses all three components whether personally or through the help of others because that foundation makes or breaks the progress and success of the enterprise. All three paths to majority ownership and potential effective CEO title have a common problem here: none of them can do the three essential tasks of the effective CEO without help. The help, and the degree to which it is needed, is usually a function of the experiences, vision and team development available to the CEO. 

    For the startup CEO especially, the needs for outside help and advice are critical. For those who have never navigated the breadth and growth of their enterprises before, seeking advice and guidance from others who have already do it is central to success.  No CEO is an island.

    Finding and utilizing the experience, practice and wisdom of others who have "been there, done it" is a major part of the learning curve.  That can be accomplished in several ways, including:

    l. Seeking out a guru who has successfully navigated the waters in which you are about to dip your toes. 

    2. Create a Board of Advisors or join a group of CEOs whose willingness to guide you through the uncharted waters and listen to your concerns and fears is another way to get this help. 

    3. Embrace the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) Gino Wickman details in his book, Traction.  The EOS/Traction process is difficult for start up firms.   It is imperative, in my opinion, that it be implemented in acquisition and inherit situations. 

    4. The COSE Strategic Planning/CEO Development course is a logical way to help those facing the acquisition/inheritance situation.  The course provides tools and information that helps with both strategy formulation and strategy execution.  Moreover, it gives participants access to over 800 business owners/key employees with at least one thing in common - they all have "drunk the kool aid" of the course and are almost always willing to share their experiences and expertise with those who have also taken the course. 

    I've Tried Becoming an Effective CEO, But I Am Failing

    Now what? You can usually deal with the vision and the core values, but not always. Some entrepreneurs simply cannot get past the habit of chasing new ideas much of the time so that the Vision is never in equilibrium. If that's your case, you need to really embrace EOS and the Traction process so you can stay focused. Where a large portion of would-be effective CEOs fall down is in team building. The solution: Hire an “Integrator” (Wickman's terminology) who can do that for you. You might even have to make that person COO or President, and she or he will run your company while you focus on those ideas and inspirations that are the next steps for the advancement of the company. It’s important to recognize and reconcile the possibility you are not the person to lead your company day to day. Remember Dr. Land earlier in this blog? It is not a weakness to realize that to achieve company success you need to take a different role. It is better to be the designer who recognizes his or her weaknesses and finds a solution to overcome them than to forge blindly ahead towards sub-par performance.  

    5 Takeaways

    Takeaway No. 1: It isn't easy to become an effective CEO. If it were easy, a lot more people would be effective CEOs.

    Takeaway No. 2: Becoming an effective CEO is a process, not an event. Getting relevant experience and education helps a lot.

    Takeaway No. 3: Get help from those who have successfully been in your shoes. Their experiences frequently stop you from going down blind alleys, helps you keep focus and form a safety net for you while giving you "next steps" insight.  "Been there, seen it, done it" is rarely overrated!

    Takeaway No. 4: Recognize you might not ever have the tools to be the effective CEO of your business. Someone else might need to be brought in to take that role.

    Takeaway No. 5: Remember the goal, not the ego. The name of the game is a successful, profitable enterprise with great rewards for all concerned (employees, customers, and you).

    Jeffrey C. Susbauer, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the Monte Ahuja College of Business, Cleveland State University where he has taught strategic management and entrepreneurship courses since 1970. A long-time consultant to scores of businesses, a member of the boards of advisors to over 60 companies, he co-founded and serves as the principal instructor for the COSE Strategic Planning/CEO Development Course for the past 36 years. The course is concerned with providing entrepreneurs with education to guide their vision, strategic thinking and execution in their businesses. 

    Learn more about the Strategic Planning/CEO Development course or contact Jeff via email

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    Next up: Becoming an Effective CEO: Choosing and Using a Board of Advisors

    Becoming an Effective CEO: Choosing and Using a Board of Advisors

    In the past 45 years, I have been involved in helping create Boards of Advisors for many entrepreneurs and have served on more than 50 such boards.  I serve on six for-profit and two non- profit boards. I have a lot of accumulated knowledge and experience in the development and execution of Boards that I will share with you in this blog.

    In the past 45 years, I have been involved in helping create Boards of Advisors for many entrepreneurs and have served on more than 50 such boards.  I serve on six for-profit and two non- profit boards. I have a lot of accumulated knowledge and experience in the development and execution of Boards that I will share with you in this blog.

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    Boards of Advisors vs. Boards of Directors

    The two choices (Advisors and Directors) are different from several perspectives.  For openers, a Board of Directors is selected to represent the interests of the shareholders of the company in a fiduciary capacity. Directors can fire officers. Directors are personally liable for errors and omissions of corporate management, whether they know about them. Directors make decisions by majority vote. By contrast, the Board of Advisors does not have any fiduciary responsibilities, serves at the pleasure of the CEO, and acts strictly in an advisory capacity.  

    Pre-Check

    In many smaller enterprises, the CEO is the majority shareholder. In those instances, Boards of Directors are hardly independent and aren't really Directors. Indeed, if the majority owner/CEO does not like the votes of the Directors, he/she may simply suspend the Board meeting and call an emergency meeting of the shareholders, who promptly remove the impediments to what the CEO wants by firing the recalcitrant Directors. The real way to discover whether you have a Board of Directors or if it is a Board of Advisors is to ask the question:

    "Does the Board have the power to fire the CEO?"  If the answer is "no", it really isn't a Board of Directors.

    Competent, business-savvy outside Directors are becoming increasingly harder to acquire for even modest-sized businesses of all kinds because of the threat of litigation. Although Directors do fulfill an important function, their lack of control in a closely-held company and the cost of Director liability insurance, among other factors, make it increasingly difficult to get outside Directors to serve and satisfy the legal responsibilities of the corporate Board.

    The Advisory Board

    An Advisory Board isn't a substitute for a Board of Directors. Properly constituted, it's a group appointed to advise, counsel and assist the owner/leader/CEO in the personal leadership of the business.  Its specific purpose is to develop advice and information, relying on the Board's collective experience.  The process permits in-depth discussion and consideration by Advisors to arrive at better decisions.  

    The Advisory Board's role is to:

    • Help develop policies, not just individual case decisions.
    • Provide objective, non-shareholder viewpoints concerning financial and other investments in the business.
    • Give advice on major decisions, including large capital appropriations, hiring/firing key people, compensation, extensive financing, strategic plans and long range commitments, as well as input into corporate strategies and tactics.
    • Assist in the transition of the owner or manager from fully active to inactive, and in training intracorporate/family successors.

    While Advisory Boards may fulfill other duties, these are usually the major purposes for the establishment of such Boards. I have seen heroic performance by Advisory Boards in providing emergency leadership and even interim management upon the tragic loss of the owner. This performance doesn't seem to be a "contractual" service of Boards, but rather an unspoken commitment.

    Advisors vs Consultants

    How does the Advisory Board differ from the use of consultants? The Advisory Board usually has a more long-term role in the future of the business, particularly if consultants are used on a confined project basis.  Consultants and Advisors both provide recommendations, but the Advisory Board is usually around long enough to see the fall-out of the recommendations.  

    A Board of Advisors can't ignore the consequences of their recommendations on behalf of the CEO any more than the Board of Directors can. A Board of Advisors is a long-term commitment that necessitates concern for the long-range prosperity of the business. Unlike consultants, Advisors may know the outcome of past decisions and may have a better knowledge of the CEO's performance and personal goals.

    Composition of Advisory Boards

    Advisory Boards that are designed only to assist the sole shareholder or CEO should be comprised only of outsiders. The outside-only Board provides freedom for the CEO to confide in people and to discuss sensitive issues, including compensation, management performance, promotions, organizational structure, divestitures, acquisitions and his or her own personal goals.  

    For other purposes, it may make sense to include key management personnel in at least some of the Advisory Board discussions, especially if training successors is a critical focus of the Board. It's a useful way for the Board to help evaluate key personnel in the company.

    If the company is small, two or three outside advisors may be sufficient. For a larger company, seven is about the maximum to permit free and useful exchange. A smaller company anticipating growth, or one making significant changes in marketing or other strategic directions, might keep positions available to add members as needed.

    Who Should Be on the Board?

    Although not absolutely essential, advisors should possess marketing skills, strategic skills, financial and analytical skills, multi-business experience and a positive interest in the success and future of the business. It is hard, if not almost impossible, to find all of those characteristics stated in the sentence above in a single individual, so individuals should be sought who have demonstrable skills collectively in those areas. People who possess these types of skills and interests can be found in all types of business (within or outside the particular industry).  The best Advisors are typically other CEOs, bankers, business attorneys, accountants (usually at the partnership level), consultants and even university professors if they have practical experience. Retired CEOs and owners of businesses in the same industry who are not competitors shouldn't be overlooked when search for suitable candidates.

    Perhaps an equally important question to ask is, "Who should not be on the Advisory Board?" Poor choices are personal attorneys, suppliers, customers, competitors, friends (if all they bring to the board is their friendship), your banker, and non-contributors (family or not) unless they are specifically being trained for succession. The corporation should have its own attorney; the personal attorney shouldn't double for the business.  

    That does not preclude anyone, including the personal attorney or the banker, from attending meetings or portions of meetings where the agenda is designed to include their perspectives in planning the future of the firm.    

    Some Board Mechanics

    A frank, open discussion between the CEO and the prospective member of the Advisory Board should be held before extending an invitation to join. Chemistry between the CEO and each Board member and between and among Board members is critical. The CEO generally is responsible for selection, keeping that chemistry in mind. I have helped several Boards to arrive at chemistry by also interviewing prospective candidates. Some Boards even "try out" prospective members to test chemistry between and among Board members and the CEO. One Advisory Board I helped create chose a very senior accountant to serve with the explicit understanding that his firm would never be allowed to bid for the firm's accounting/consulting needs as long as he served on the Board.  

    On Boards on which I serve, no one has "tenure" and resignations (undated)—for cause or no cause—are tendered upon acceptance of the invitation to join. As a practical matter, it usually takes a year or more for Board members to become fully acquainted with the problems and prospects of a firm. That's why members are given at least a year or so to "prove" themselves.

    As they like to say, "What goes on in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.” The same must be true for the interactions, discussions, and information sharing in doing Board business. Several Boards on which I have served have a mandatory "confidentiality" statement signed by each Board member.    

    The number of meetings varies as a function of the needs of the CEO and the firm. Advisory groups in rapidly moving companies tend to meet more often than groups in companies having more stable environments. Meetings should occur at least quarterly, and meeting as many as eight times a year isn't uncommon in more turbulent environments, especially in companies experiencing rapid growth. Less than four meetings a year doesn't permit sufficient Board continuity and familiarization with the important issues of the business.

    While some Advisors serve gratis, the more typical arrangement is to pay the equivalent of an hourly rate for professionals used by the firm.  This pay is therefore, normally in the $200 to $300/hour range. That translates into about $500 to $750 per meeting. While most Board members appreciate getting paid, they rarely rank remuneration at the top of their lists explaining why they serve on Boards. It is nice, however, to provide the Board honorarium at the end of the meeting rather than having the Board members wait for the check. That is a further reinforcement that the CEO values the Board's efforts and time. Payment reinforces the "contractual" nature of the mutual business expectations. The CEO has the right to expect Advisors to prepare for meetings. The CEO has the right to expect regular attendance at meetings. Pay also normally entitles the CEO to expect that an occasional between meetings phone call and/or a lunch are welcomed by the Advisors.

    Future meeting dates/times should always be the last item on the current meeting agenda. Many Boards on which I have served do a rolling year, scheduling the four (or sometimes more) meetings for the year at or before the first Board meeting and then extending the schedule so that meetings are on everyone's calendars a year in advance. Does that mean the scheduled meetings always take place at the original date/time? Of course not. But advance scheduling with all present dramatically increases the chances that the Board meets regularly because all Board members have the meetings on their schedules and can usually hold the dates firm. 

    Effective Use of Advisors

    Using Advisors effectively is important, particularly if they have accepted the roles outlined above. The CEO has an obligation to plan the meeting agenda, with a summary of background information to be discussed in a clear and brief manner. Agendas and supporting materials (including financial statements) should be sent to all Advisors at least a week prior to the meeting. 

    Agendas should clearly indicate the time to be allocated for discussion of a topic. This cues the Advisors as to the relative importance of an agenda item in the CEO's mind and helps the Advisors organize their own preparation for the meeting.  The CEO's preparation leads to better preparation by the Board. Often the CEO's preparation is worth as much as the meeting itself. One Board on which I served almost always represented a "second opinion" on issues the CEO wanted to discuss because he found in preparing the agenda, he usually arrived at a conclusion on the issues about which the Board members frequently (but not always) concurred.   

    Meetings should always start at the scheduled time. The meeting should also have a target ending time, which should be respected so Advisors can plan the rest of their day.  Meetings lasting more than three hours are rarely as productive as meetings which are scheduled for two to three hours. Mental (and fanny) fatigue increases much past a couple of hours. Think about how you typically spend your business day and you will see that shorter meetings are generally more productive than longer meetings. That does not mean the occasional meeting will be scheduled for even all day or over a couple of days, but that's unusual and generally reserved for major issues where a lot of information gathering and analysis need to happen. If the meeting is scheduled for a normal meal time, food brought in is appropriate. Meals before or after an Advisory Board meeting are not necessary, but they may be useful as part of the socialization process. The key is to have a mutual respect for the time the CEO and the Advisors require of one another. A meeting should move at a good pace with someone other than the CEO acting as secretary.

    I have encouraged CEOs to sit down within a couple of weeks after a Board meeting to write the Board a brief report concerning what information and discussion from the meeting was helpful. This feedback cues the Board as to their value and helps the CEO to crystallize his or her thoughts and follow-on actions.   

    Some Takeaways

    1. Boards of Advisors are not for everyone.  I know many entrepreneurs who do not accept criticism well and while they do use advisors, they do so one-on-one. That misses the point of bringing collective experience and expertise together to assist CEO decision making.

    2. Choose Board members for the expertise they bring to the table.  If the CEO is weak in a critical area, finding strong talent in that area is paramount to Board success. Likewise, if most of the Board members have talents/expertise similar to each other or similar to the CEO's expertise, the tendency will be to have "group think"outcomes in analysis and advice.

    3. Preparation is key to Board success. Setting the agenda in advance, scheduling Board meetings several meetings in advance of the current meeting, allocating expected times to agenda items, starting and ending on time are really important. If you want to have a great Board, choose people who bring real expertise to the table and respect their time. Even really busy people will find the time to participate in Boards if the meetings are productive and are well paced.

    4. Pay the Board honorarium at or shortly after the Board meeting. That tells the Board members you appreciate their time and thinking about the problems and opportunities the firm faces that you want their input on. Follow up shortly after the meeting with an after-report that tells the Board members what your own takeaways were from the meeting and what actions you are expecting to take as the result of the meeting.

    5. Give your Board at least a year to learn about your business.  However, just as you can usually quickly establish (30 to 60 days) that a newly hired employee isn't going to have a future with your firm (you made a bad hiring decision), you should be able to tell after the first two meetings which Board members you selected are going to be right for your needs. If you made a mistake, correct it earlier rather than later. That's partly why I recommend a resignation letter be submitted when the member is invited to join your Board.  (Full disclosure: that goes both ways. I have fired myself from a couple of Boards because the chemistry simply wasn't there between me and other Board members).

     

    Jeffrey C. Susbauer, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the Monte Ahuja College of Business, Cleveland State University where he has taught strategic management and entrepreneurship courses since 1970.  A long-time consultant to scores of businesses, a member of the boards of advisors to over 60 companies, he co-founded and serves as the principal instructor for the COSE Strategic Planning/CEO Development Course for the past 36 years. 

    The course is concerned with providing entrepreneurs with education to guide their vision, strategic thinking and execution in their businesses. Learn more about the Strategic Planning/CEO Development course or contact Jeff via email.

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    Next up: BizConCLE Spotlight: Live Your Mission Statement

    BizConCLE Spotlight: Live Your Mission Statement

    Erica Javellana joined Zappos.com, Inc. in 2007 as a Human Resources Generalist where she quickly rose through the ranks to lead the team as the Employee Relations Manager. We sat down with her recently to gain insight on what other businesses can learn from Zappos’ unconventional organizational structure.

    By developing a company culture and committing to it, you can make a positive change within your organization. Zappos.com has grown their business because of their unique culture and the service they provide to their customers. Prior to her upcoming keynote at BizConCLE, we sat down with Zappos Insights’ Speaker of The House, Erica Javellana to talk more in-depth about finding your company’s culture and what it takes to bring about organizational change.

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    Q: What is one takeaway you want people to walk away from your keynote having learned?

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    Javellana: It’s about finding your culture. And the most important thing about that is committing to it. You can have a mission statement. You can claim to have a culture. But if you’re not committed to that, it’s a moot point. The emphasis has to be on finding your culture. Find what works best for you and what defines your company and culture and commit to that. You can list off all you want from your value statement, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not going to live by it.

    It starts with the onboarding process and being transparent to the candidates when you’re bringing them in. If you hire the right people, you get the right culture. People will understand what they’re coming into. You can tell them, “We’re not a company that just says it. We’re going to walk it.” When I first started at Zappos, the hiring manager told me that all of the basic foundations I knew about HR were great and we want that. But everything else, just ignore because what we’re doing here is we’re willing to make exceptions to the rule. It created an environment where autonomy speaks volumes. We hire adults and treat them like adults. Let’s trust our employees to be adults and make smart choices. Autonomy is important. Trust your employees. And tell them when they’re brought on and when they’re interviewing that you’re a company that lives its core values.

    Q: Is it possible to change a company’s culture entirely?

    Javellana: Absolutely. And it depends on scale. I hear people say all the time, “I just don’t have that kind of clout.” Of course you do. Maybe it’s not to go straight to the CEO or the VP or the president, but you can begin making those small changes in your job, or your department, or your team. Be that part of the change. Everyone else is going to be wondering, “What is that department so darn happy?” Those are the small changes you can make in your own power. Change your mindset. Love what you do, be passionate about what you do, and it will trickle over to others. People always say, “I’m just a whatever.” Well, be the best damn whatever you can be. That’s going to trickle down.

    Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned working at Zappos?

    Javellana: You’ve heard of KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid? It’s a cliché, but the most important thing I’ve learned is really simple: You can’t have happy customers if you don’t have happy employees. It’s so simple, but it’s huge. That alone drives the quality of customer service and your company’s brand. We believe if our employees are happy, our customers will be happy. People expect that we have some sort of secret formula at Zappos and it’s not a secret formula. If you follow the simple clichés and commit to them, you will be surprised. I think people overanalyze things.

    Want to hear more about what Javellana has to say about the best way to look at your company’s organizational structure? Register for the BizConCLE show on Oct. 12 to find out.

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