What to Look for in an Outside Advisor

By Ron Price

I spent most of my career serving in leadership roles inside of organizations. I’m grateful for the experiences I gained owning businesses, running businesses owned by others, and leading in non-profit organizations. From time to time, I had occasion to engage and work with consultants, facilitators, and coaches in each of these organizations. Unfortunately, I was rarely satisfied with the role these outside advisors played in helping our organizations move forward.

Too often, the advisors I hired had a generic program or specific expertise that they were convinced where just what we needed. They envisioned their role as teaching our leaders how to fit into their paradigm, as if their framework or expertise was the exact solution to our problems. Instead of taking time to develop a deep understanding of our organization, they could not wait to start implementing their proven solutions. Don’t misinterpret what I’m mean—these were good and experienced people. They always had great credentials and good stories of their past work. But I was looking for something more. I wanted someone who could be:

  • A good listener. I rarely felt the advisors I hired developed a deep understanding of my perceptions, deeper questions and wants. Often, it was difficult for me to articulate what I was looking for and it would have taken patient inquiry to develop a deeper understanding of the potential benefits in working together.
  • An effective thought partner. I didn’t want someone who would tell me what to do. I was looking for someone who would help me think through problems and opportunities. Someone who helped me develop more critical thinking skills through their questions, sharing relevant experiences, and by patiently helping instead of telling.
  • A collaborative problem solver. Too often, my advisors would give me their solutions, expecting me to immediately buy in and commit to a path they could see clearly. Instead, I would have enjoyed and cheerfully paid more for someone who would collaborate with me to develop courses of action that we created by working together.
  • An endorser who would inspire my courage. I’m don’t mean someone who flattered me, particularly early in the relationship. Instead, I would have benefited more from someone who helped me shape my own convictions and then increase my confidence in our ability to move forward successfully.

This was a primary motivator for me in founding Price Associates as a leadership advisory firm in 2004. I wanted to become and build a team of advisors who would deliver value in ways I had hoped for and rarely experienced as an organizational leader. My past experience as an owner and executive has certainly helped me when it comes to specific knowledge and experience. I’m grateful for the breadth of knowledge I gained in a variety of management practices, including operations, finance, product development, sales, marketing, and human resource management. However, the role of advisor requires skills that go far beyond past experience as an executive.

After sixteen years in the role of advisor, I’m still learning how to serve effectively. My natural inclinations are to be more a teacher or thought leader. I’m grateful for how easy this comes for me and how much joy it brings. However, the skills I have needed to develop further, and I continue to focus on, are those of becoming a better listener, thought partner, collaborator and endorser.

Along the way, I have come to understand that there are a variety of advisory styles and contributions to be made. These include:

  • Consultant – This is a person who brings specific expertise to an organization. This can vary from relevant research or thought leadership. Advisors who fit into this category often do market research, strategy work, or possess specific skillsets that bring greater clarity, focus or performance to an organization and its leaders. Sometimes consultants help leaders think more substantively and other times they mentor leaders in specific skills and activities.
  • Facilitator/Trainer – This is a person who helps guide the conversations and work inside of an organization through models, processes, content, and structured conversations. Great facilitator/trainers are able to increase or decrease their facilitation and training styles to fit the evolving needs of the organization.
  • Coach – This is probably the fastest growing type of outside advisor today. In the early days of coaching as a profession, most engagements were focused on fixing leaders who had one or more behaviors that were counterproductive. However, over the last decade, more and more coaching focuses on helping emerging leaders grow their capacities for future promotions. Smart leaders understand that, even as world-class athletes use coaches to stay sharp and optimize performance, world-class organizational leaders can benefit from coaches who help them stay strong and fine-tuned during their peak years of impact. Great coaches have the ability to move in and out of all four of the roles listed above (listener, thought leader, collaborator, endorser) depending on what will be most beneficial in the moment. This is what I most desired as an executive and never found.

Have you used outside advisors? How have they contributed to your success? What did they do well and what do you wish they could have done better?

Have you considered engaging outside advisors? If so, I hope this article will help you choose more wisely and gain more advantage from their involvement.

To talk to Ron about his checklist or give him some feedback on his questions, email him at Ron@price-associates.com.