4 ways to recruit a successful advisory board

As companies gain prominence in the security space, building an advisory board is one of the first steps they take to marry industry expertise with deep product knowledge. Advisory boards are a perfect fit for security – they add third-party perspectives that could be instrumental in defending customers from data loss or a targeted attack. However, for the same reason, the perspective added by a board can prove valuable in many other industries.

When Andrew Hay joined DataGravity, one of his first tasks was to help DataGravity assemble the company’s security board. Below are some tips on creating a useful advisory board, based on our experiences with the process.

Don’t lose track of the goals you’re setting out to accomplish.
Before you start an advisory board, you should have some objectives in mind – such as the traits of the members you are looking to attract, and the formal commitment you are looking for. Like most things, by defining upfront what success looks like, it’s easy to know you’ve achieved it.

I find it’s best to start with a small team when building an advisory board, and grow the group as you need to over time. I would also keep the duration for membership low, starting with one year or two years tops. This way, it’s easy to tune things as you go.

Lay out the ideal traits of your board members.
It’s critical to ensure your members’ strengths align with your board’s goals. For example, our recently formed security advisory board (SAB) aims for a few core objectives:

  1. Review and advise product roadmap, marketing, and strategy alignment as it pertains to members’ geographic, industry, and knowledge expertise;
  2. Act as a sounding board for new product features, functionality, products, and services; and
  3. Help DataGravity build the best data-aware product we can for our customers.

As we considered preferred traits for the board’s members, we had a few requirements:

  1. Domain expertise with hands-on experience in data security, as it relates to various regulated industries. In our case, the financial industry, healthcare, retail and education.
  2. At least one member who understands issues unique to security in the EU, as well as privacy constraints.
  3. Strong, confident personalities who can provide actionable insights. It is important that the members are confident enough to call BS when industry marketing tries to surface as technology.
  4. A willingness to help refine an idea when they believe it has as merit, even if the raw idea is muddled.

Be clear about what you’re asking from your board.
Here’s the commitment we asked from our board members:

  1. Validate that their employers have approved them joining the board. Generally this isn’t an issue, but it can be. In the recruiting process, we lost one member because board participation was against their current employer’s policy.
  2. Be clear about the time commitments they can offer. Since board members aren’t full-time employees, it’s up to us to work with them and figure out what’s reasonable. My experience has been a few hours a month per board member is sufficient.

Avoid common mistakes that can kill your board’s value.
If you are still reading this blog, you’ve got the basics covered. Now, the trick is to turn this group of amazing people you just got to sign on into an ongoing source of valuable insight. There are lots of examples where companies totally missed out on getting the insights and leverage a well-run advisory board can provide, and you can use those mishaps as a framework for obstacles you’ll need to avoid. Here are some common mistakes:

  1. You don’t share your warts, so they can’t help evaluate better options/choices.
  2. A conversation with board members has them listening to you, rather than you listening to them.
  3. You don’t pull all members of the board together at the same time, either physically or virtually, so you can get their collective input. If you’ve assembled the right mix they’ll spark ideas off each other when joined in a group.
  4. You are either too specific, or not specific enough, about your questions and goals for the group.
  5. After meeting with the board, you are too embarrassed to admit you didn’t understand a damn thing they just said. Ask for details and clarity until you fully understand the suggestion and its benefits for your customers.
  6. You treat board members like consultants or contractors. They’re part of your team now – recognize them for their work.

We used these simple guidelines to build our SAB. The members are diverse in terms of industry, current roles and domain expertise. One thing they all have him common is they have had the privilege and nightmares of being where the puck stops for protecting IT infrastructure and data.

In our first meeting, we structured it so we could have an interactive discussion about the company’s objective, a product overview and a product demo. We were talking, but also asking questions. As a result, we received actionable feedback right off the bat about improvements that will help customers covered by the new EU privacy standards meet necessary requirements. This should have been on our radar initially, but it took board input and perspectives to make it a priority. We also learned more detail about how hospitals think about security and what is important to them – information we knew from a textbook and past experiences, but was much more useful to hear from someone in the trenches.

Another important thing to ensure board success is to let an agenda with a set of goals guide every advisory board meeting. We’ll be following this action to make sure we maximize our members’ time. However, always leave time for industry trends and general discussion – often, that’s the most valuable part of an advisory board meeting.

Learn more about the issues being tackled by the DataGravity Security Advisory Board.

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Paula Long

Paula Long is the CEO and co-founder of DataGravity. She previously co-founded storage provider EqualLogic, which was acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion in 2008. She remained at Dell as vice president of storage until 2010. Prior to EqualLogic, she served in engineering management positions at Allaire Corporation and oversaw the ClusterCATS product line at Bright Tiger Technologies. She is a graduate of Westfield State College.