An Outside Advisory Board Can Find the Gaps in a Firm’s Strategy and Add New Perspective

Firm leaders encourage their teams to think creatively but generating an outsider’s perspective from within can feel impossible. Veterans may struggle to challenge the status quo, while early-career staff may lack the confidence to offer fresh ideas. To counteract this conundrum, some firms opt to appoint an outside advisory board to bring new insights to the table and a wider, more objective view of the business landscape.

Firms can use advisory boards in a variety of ways. Some look to outside experts for their opinions on a range of issues, which include go-to-market strategies, acquisition opportunities, employee development, benefits or expanded service lines.

At Bland & Associates of Omaha, Neb., the plan is to create a blended board of insiders and outsiders to look at the firm’s entire strategic plan. Other firms take a more targeted approach and focus solely on one service line, which was the case at Livingston, N.J.- based SobelCo, which became part of CLA on Feb. 1, 2023.

Despite the potential benefits, however, only 38 firms among the 500+ participants in the 2022 IPA Practice Management Survey reported using an outside advisory board.

Here are lightly edited excerpts of IPA’s conversations with Bland MP Jeremy Vokt and former SobelCo principal Sally Glick, who is now brand ambassador at CLA.

Sally Glick, CLA

Why did the firm appoint an advisory board?

SobelCo set up an advisory board for its non-profit as a leader in the area. The board gave us legitimacy, authority and credibility. We added their names to our website and to our proposals. We asked them questions like: What are we missing? What’s the word on the street? What keeps you up at night? What keeps your clients up at night? Where should we be that we’re not?

What is the makeup of the board? How often do you meet? How long are their terms? Are they paid?

We had about 10 people on the board, including representatives from the New Jersey Center for Nonprofits, consulting firms and non-profit organizations. Some were clients; some not. No terms were set and no one was paid, but the firm made a donation at each of the three annual luncheon meetings.

What can an outside advisor bring to the firm that an insider can’t?

You get a broader outlook. You’re not clinging to a preconceived notion and then finding justification for it, which I think can happen when you’re too close inside.

What are the benefits?

We wanted people to know that we’re talking with these high-quality professionals on a regular basis, so when we have a strategic suggestion, we’re not just spouting off the top of our heads, we’re also integrating ideas from others who have a variety of perspectives. Also, the group helped us with topics, speakers and suggestions for our annual non-profit conference. I think it can only help you with regards to retention and new business, but that isn’t the main goal. The main goal is to make you smarter.

What are the limitations or challenges?

An informal advisory board is an add-on to what these busy professionals are already doing, but they enjoyed each other and were very generous in sharing ideas. Another potential challenge is the lack of term limits, which can come back to bite you if there’s a dominating personality on the board.

Jeremy Vokt, Bland & Associates

Why did the firm appoint an advisory board?

We are required as a 100% Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) to have a board of directors. It’s been me and original owners Jason Tonjes and Troy McKinney since January 2020, but we now need to expand the board and we’d like to get feedback on the firm’s operations, strategy and goals.

What is the makeup of the board? How often do you meet? How long are their terms? Are they paid?

We are transitioning the board to replace McKinney with another partner and add two outside advisors, a CPA firm consultant and an Omaha attorney. The plan is to meet at least twice a year, once in person, probably starting in the fall. We’re thinking the terms would be two or three years with a limit of two terms. Some kind of annual stipend would be given to the outside advisors, but we’re still researching that.

What can an outside advisor bring to the firm that an insider can’t?

Having someone in an advisory role without being in the weeds day to day in the firm is a perspective we cannot get internally. They may see things about the firm, industry and business environment we just don’t because we are focused on serving our clients.

What are the benefits?

If I could fast-forward to a year from now, I hope the board will be interactive and make suggestions on the firm’s strategic plan — maybe even poke holes in it. It all sounds good to us as accountants, but getting some outside expertise helps gives us different viewpoints and some guidance.

What are the limitations or challenges?

I don’t know quite yet but I’m pretty excited to be able to lean on our board for strategy and just different perspectives.

This article originally appeared in the March 2023 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting. To subscribe to INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly click here.


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