Business School Advisory Boards

Sarah Hardcastle asks “Just how much challenge are you, as Dean, prepared to accept?”

Advisory Board:

“And I would say to the Dean: ‘If I ever tell you how to run the Business School, you can fire me. And if you ever tell me to stop challenging you, you can fire me.”

After twenty-seven in-depth interviews to capture the experience of those leading, managing and participating on business school advisory boards, it was clear that these boards are invariably shaped by the personalities of their dean and their chair and they act as a sounding board and critical friend for the senior leadership team at their respective business schools.

Advisory Board:

“The Board is there to provide a challenge to the Dean, challenge to the strategy and really invigorate relevance for the Business School. It helps them develop a greater breadth and depth of insight to feed into the programmes they are constructing and the way that they’re actually delivering.”

Rather than wishing to be part of a tick-box exercise or ‘sitting on the school mantelpiece’, a board member’s ability to give effective advice very much reflects the level of challenge a dean is prepared to accept and how close the board is allowed to get to a ‘warts and all’ understanding of the school.

Advisory Board:

“What’s now happening is that the Board Members are being drawn into the actual heartbeat of the organisation. That actually helps us bring more relevance because we gain a much better understanding of the Business School itself.”

In this, our first “Sharing the Experience” report, we chose to focus on UK school advisory boards, as we are aware there may be cultural and economic variances in different regions. Nonetheless, this article examines relevant findings where shared learning can be applied by the business school community internationally. Our free report “Business School Advisory Boards – Maximising the Opportunity” examines:

  • The importance of clearly defined Terms of Reference including role and remit
  • How to carefully create the perfect diverse mix
  • Where different boards are adding value
  • How board members’ motivations drive their levels of engagement
  • The importance of strong leadership and strong management of the board
  • Tensions caused by the two perspectives of the academic and business worlds
  • Future anticipated demands on business school advisory boards

We found clear evidence that investing time early on generates increased value for your school going forwards, through:

  • Clearly defining the role of your board aligned to your school’s vision, mission and importantly, its values, to ensure focus where you most need it and help achieve your strategic goals
  • Clarifying expectations and commitments in detailed Terms of Reference: outlining what is expected from board members AND what your school commits to in return
  • Carefully constructing or re-shaping your board with a mix that is diverse in every way including a breadth of expertise, demographics and network reach, to enable sharing of a wider range of experiences leading to innovative and creative solutions. Our report looks at how to create a pipeline of potential new board members and puts forward a case for their external recruitment.
  • The addition to the board of another academic colleague such as an international, national or recently retired dean can help develop a valuable close relationship. This provides a source of knowledgeable advice on shared esoteric and internal school challenges although other board members may be concerned that competitive information will be shared in this way.
  • Inducting board members into the business school and wider higher education world to challenge any pre-conceptions (especially important with alumni) and to provide a greater depth of understanding of terminology, structures, challenges, constrictions, decision-making processes, and where relevant, interaction with the parent university.

Rather than wishing to be part of a tick-box exercise or ‘sitting on the school mantelpiece’, a board member’s ability to give effective advice very much reflects the level of challenge a dean is prepared to accept and how close the board is allowed to get to a ‘warts and all’ understanding of the school.

So where are boards adding value and generating the greatest impact?

Our report identifies where and how advisory boards are adding the greatest value to their schools. Some areas are, as you might anticipate, strategic direction, school metrics, relevance
and employability, identifying additional income opportunities and raising profile. However, other areas were also shared with us that were worth highlighting here:

  • The role of board members as advocates and ambassadors endorsing the school is something that has an impact not just externally but can have huge benefit with internal audiences in the business school and the wider university.
  • The board no longer exists simply to provide personal support to the deans, there is increasing engagement of board members directly with school executive teams and in some cases, where facilitated, with faculty members and professional staff across the school.
  • Some deans ask board members to support both the recruitment and the development of senior members of the school. This development of the senior leadership team is often encouraged in an organic way through greater interaction between and during meetings, where individual team members will present and discuss their work. One school shared that they have introduced a formal mentoring scheme that pairs up board members with new members of the school executive team, to support them in their new leadership role.

When was the last time you thought about what you could do for your board members?

Our conversations identified noticeably different levels of board member engagement. Often members agree to join the board as a way to give something back, so understanding the motivations that underlie this need can lead to the deeper engagement of these very busy people. As with any relationship, the dynamics work better when there is mutual benefit and so we ask you, do you really know your board members well, where their interests and passions lie, or do you only have an understanding of their areas of expertise and experience?
We found board member engagement will be increased through:

  • Facilitating networking: with other board members, relevant external stakeholders and members of the school and university
  • Making informed requests for their support linked to their expertise AND their interests
  • Defining agenda items that are topics of mutual interest and ones where the board feel they can add value
  • Keeping them up-to-date with innovations in education as a whole and specifically in professional development
  • Increasing visibility of the board and providing feedback as to where it is making an impact and where they are personally making a difference.

Should you aim to balance the tensions from these two very different perspectives?

Advisory Board:

“If I had that collective brainpower under one roof, we would commercialise and monetise that and actually have a super-margin business. Something that frustrates me is that within the academic world there is definitely a clash between money and academia. And the wall that you hit is that the academics do not want to be completely poisoned by people like me who just want to commercialise things and measure it in terms of how much money you can make.”

Business School:

“We’re here because we love research; we love teaching. We love disseminating our ideas and discussing these points – it’s in the DNA of an academic; that’s why we get up in the morning to do this. It’s about knowledge acquisition and dissemination. I’m never convinced that members of the Advisory Board fully understand that.”

Definitely challenging and sometimes adding a healthy tension, the collaboration between business schools and business leaders is a meeting of two different mindsets that can be extremely beneficial for the schools, providing a true source of ideas and creativity.

Advisory Board:

“What were the restrictions? Sometimes they seem self-imposed and we, the Board, ask searching questions about why things could not be done in a different way and we would quote our experiences as examples. And I think the Dean found that really helpful for idea generation.”

Business School:

“…and the Board have got a point really, why don’t we do that?”

However there is potential for frustration where there is lack of appreciation of the constraints placed on schools in contrast to the more agile business environment board members usually operate in.

Advisory Board:

“I’ll tell you where the tension is: that universities like to move at a certain pace and you’ve got five executive people around the table who are used to dealing with shareholders and third-party stakeholders and if you don’t move at the right pace you don’t have a job.”

Schools often voiced the opinion that board members needed greater appreciation of the expectation upon the school to fulfil the role as income generator for the university and the difficult task of balancing this with the vision, mission and values of the business school.

When the future is unclear, how can your advisory board help?

Looking to the future with fast changing business and education environments, the role of the advisory board is expected to become even more important with schools needing an ever higher level of engagement for a range of support including:

  • finding different income streams
  • evaluating developments across different industries
  • understanding responses to the changing environment in board members’ particular businesses
  • providing ‘on the ground’ insight, advice and understanding of the status of play in different countries
  • understanding strategically and operationally how schools can assist regional economic recovery

Business School:

“I do think there’s scope for growth of advisory boards. To look at the American model and start using boards more skilfully than we do currently. We tend to use them for curriculum development, research opportunities, consultancy. But what I’d like to see is the stuff that we don’t normally do – push us out of our comfort zone. And COVID-19, for all its problems, has created that window of opportunity now for us to do things differently.”

When is three not actually a crowd?

We leave you with this thought: it was clear from the wide-ranging interviews that those schools that nominated a member of their senior leadership team to manage their board alongside the strong leadership of the Chair and the Dean, did engender greater levels of engagement. This was achieved through multiple informal interactions with board members, regularly drawing them in and involving them in school activities and most of all, regularly asking for their help.

There was little doubt that the business schools we spoke to all highly value this source of external challenge, support and advice, striving to gain the maximum benefit for their schools.

Business School:

“I’m always worried that we’re not being innovative enough with the Board, we’re not being creative enough. We’re not using their experiences in the real world, away from academia, to challenge us. They give us really good ideas around what we should be doing and where the gaps are. Pointing out what we shouldn’t be doing is equally something that they’re good at.”

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