The Right Way to Handle Distributor Advisory Councils
This week’s article is from Brett Duncan, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners. Brett has worked in direct selling since 2002, holding titles that include Vice President of Global Marketing and Sr. Director of Online Solutions. He works directly with direct selling companies as a strategic facilitator and corporate consultant, specializing in leading marketing, communications and digital teams and projects.
Guest Post by Brett Duncan
The Right Way to Handle Distributor Advisory Councils
Anyone who has worked at a direct selling company for any period of time has experienced a Distributor Advisory Council meeting: Those meetings with select field leaders and home office members to help gain insights and input from the field. On the surface, these meetings seem productive and helpful in nature, and they can and should be. Getting feedback from your top salespeople and customers should always be highly valued.
However, you’ve probably experienced more of these meetings that don’t go well than those that do. The dynamics of a room full of top leaders, mixed with the weight of often timely and important discussion topics, mixed with the Home Office’s inability to run these meetings very well, can lead to all kinds of chaos, and worse, a fading trust in leadership.
Some not-so-fond memories I have from advisory council meetings included completely changing a campaign set to launch the next day, trashing new packaging and a rebrand that was only three months old and even firing an executive on the spot. These meetings are never boring!
So what can you do about it?
Shouldn’t an advisory council meeting be a good and helpful thing? Something we look forward to? Something that brings clarity and unity?
Of course they should. But they seldom are. That’s because we rarely run them correctly.
In today’s article, I want to pass along some tips I’ve picked up in my time as a corporate executive and even as a consultant hired to run meetings like this for companies that can make your advisory council meetings much less stressful and much more helpful.
Be Clear on What an Advisory Council is Good for (and What It’s Not)
The best advisory council meetings I’ve been a part of are those that are structured to truly seek advice. This seems simple and straightforward based on the very name of the council. However, I’ve seen far too many companies treat these sessions the wrong way. The Home Office needs to present a handful of areas where they are in a position to receive advice, and have the runway to actually apply that advice. You’re not asking the council to make a decision; you’re simply asking for feedback. Ultimately, the decision-making lies still with the Home Office.
The purpose of the session is to acquire advice, perspective and reactions from a group of hand-picked leaders, knowing that they adequately represent the overall field perspective. In order to get that advice and perspective in a coherent way, you have to clearly present topics and ideas for them to respond to.
Put another way, one of the best ways to leverage this group is to present a concept or campaign as though it’s final, and just see how they respond. I’ve done this before many times, and the boldness and assumed “finality” of the concept is what conjures up the best responses.
You’ll learn very quickly if they love it because they’ll start energetically offering extra ideas on how to promote it. If they hate it, the room will go silent for a moment, and then they’ll all start telling you what a stupid idea it is. As long as you have thick skin, the phrases they use as they give this feedback is where the real gold is. Why do they love it? Why do they hate it? Sometimes it’s a clear program flaw. Other times, it’s more of a personal fear or self-interest. Your job is to decipher and filter that feedback into useful chunks.
With that in mind, it’s very important for you, the leader of the advisory council sessions, to be crystal clear on what you want to accomplish at the end of the meeting. You don’t have to share this with the rest of the group, but as long as you are clear on the input you want to receive by the end of the meeting, then you can guarantee that you guide the meeting in that direction every step of the way.
What Advisory Councils are NOT Good For
As you can imagine, I’ve been a part of several advisory council sessions that were quite ineffective because their primary purpose was not to receive advice. Here are the main culprits I run into with many companies that should be avoided:
• Strategic Sessions: Some companies want to leverage their advisory councils for long-term strategic sessions. I definitely think field leaders provide value when thinking strategically. However, I do not think an advisory council of field leaders is best served or leveraged for strategic planning.
The reasons for this are as follows: First, it’s difficult for most people to think strategically. Maybe they don’t have the practice or experience. As top sales people, they are often geared toward turning quick results that impact this month’s check, not next year’s. I also find that most leaders (not all) simply struggle with stepping outside the viewpoint of their own team and their own self-interests to truly add value to a longterm strategic discussion.
In addition, these sessions are rarely facilitated by someone who knows how to lead a strategic session with a large group. I’ve seen advisory council sessions include as many as 50 people before. It’s impossible to have a truly strategic discussion with a group that large.
• Decision-Making: In other cases, the Home Office uses the advisory council as a place to make a call on lingering decisions. This approach is often veiled in a real democratic theme, in that everyone gets a voice, but typically what’s really happening is the Home Office is stuck in the decision-making process and simply not willing to make a call, so they’ll just let the field do it for them.
The problem with this is that your field leaders simply cannot process and appreciate all the different contexts and data points that go into many decisions the home office has to make. Also, my experience is that the field is typically very good at identifying pain points and challenges, but their solutions are often half-baked or too specific to them and their team to apply to the entire company. And that makes sense, because that’s their world.
So to leave decision-making with a group like this can be lazy and misguided all at the same time. These sessions are not about making decisions; they are about getting advice.
• Dog and Pony Shows: Many times, the Home Office treats an advisory council session as a chance to update these select leaders on what different departments are doing in the office. This is a mistake.
First, what is presented by each department is often so close to going live that most advice cannot actually impact the launch of whatever it is that’s being presented. So it leads to either last-minute changes that are painful, or it leads to the dreaded “We can handle that as a phase 2 item” type of response.
No one wants to hear that.
Second, it’s a waste of this group and this time. You must maximize your time in understanding what the field is experiencing and needing now. The clearer you can get on this, the easier it becomes to create programs and projects to make it all happen. Don’t count on them to tell you exactly what you should be doing; count on them to share their current challenges or perceived opportunities, and then you go figure out how to address those things.
Your field leaders are not corporate execs. As a matter of fact, many of them probably got into direct selling so they wouldn’t have to be a corporate exec. So don’t make them suffer through a boring board meeting.
Set Clear Ground Rules for Your Meeting
When I lead an advisory council meeting, I set clear ground rules upfront with the group so they know what the expectations are for the meeting, and they know that, should I cut them off or steer them in a different direction later, it’s for the sake of the meeting and not because I’m trying to be rude.
Here are my baseline ground rules I use with any group:
1. Nothing Leaves This Room.
We’re discussing ideas and programs that are not yet final or even given the green light to launch. I know how tempting it is for you to share stuff like this with your team, but please do not do this. At best, it only gives them a reason to wait for something to happen, and none of us wants them waiting in their business. At worst, you could share information that’s incomplete and incorrect, and that could have a severely negative impact on the business.
We love and need your input. However, if we find out we can’t trust this group to keep this information here in the meeting, then we won’t be able to conduct these meetings in the future, and that doesn’t help any of us. So your integrity on this matter is extremely important.
(In many cases, members of the council sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I remind them of that and the consequences of breaking it).
2. Show Grace and Maturity.
It’s easy to get emotional when we talk about certain topics. It’s also easy to assume that something that was said, or the way it was said, is contrived and meant to do harm.
For this meeting, when you get that feeling, let’s assume all of our intentions are the best. For example, if someone from the Home Office gets a detail about the compensation plan incorrect in a discussion, show grace and just let it go, or correct it nicely. If another field leader says something you think is directed at you in a snarky way, assume that it’s not, and then follow up with them in person later.
If we can take this attitude, we’re going to have a great meeting.
3. Nothing is a Decision.
Nothing we talk about today is a final decision. No one should leave here thinking, “we talked about that one program, therefore it’s for sure going to happen.” Even if someone from the Home Office says, “We are definitely going to do that,” assume we’re just getting caught up in the moment and it’s not 100% sure yet that we will do something. We all need to give ourselves a little space to process what we discuss after this meeting before we make any decisions.
Put another way, just because we talk about something here doesn’t mean we’re going to do it. We’re asking you for input so we can make better decisions after this.
(SIDE NOTE: by adding this ground rule, it immediately lifts the burden for the group to feel the pressure of making an urgent decision, and also makes sure you’re not counting on them for decision-making).
4. This is NOT a Democracy.
The majority does not necessarily rule in this meeting. I may even ask for a show of hands related to something we’re talking about. That is not a vote; it is simply a mechanism for getting feedback.
Of course we are not going to ignore resounding feedback from our field leaders, but it would be wrong to assume that, “just because the council wants it, it’s going to happen.” Again, you’re here to help us shape the decisions for the company, not to necessarily determine them.
5. Wear Three Hats.
Each of you has three hats you can take on and off as you think through our discussion topics today. The first hat you can wear is the hat that belongs to you. That’s the easiest and most natural viewpoint to take, because it’s your business. That viewpoint is important, but it’s probably the least important viewpoint to have today.
The second hat you can wear is your team’s hat. As we discuss items today, you’ll filter it through the viewpoint of your team member, their circumstances. That’s important and relevant, but it’s still not the most important hat to wear.
The third hat is the company hat. This is the viewpoint outside of your own personal or team perspective. This is the viewpoint that matters the most today.
Sometimes we get lucky and everything looks good from all three viewpoints. Other times, a really good company viewpoint might not look good from your personal team’s viewpoint, or even for a specific team member. We have to account for all three hats today, but I want to challenge you to wear the company hat as much as possible.
6. Don’t Chase Rabbits (Far).
As we discuss items that are important to us, it’s easy to think of other things that are important, or stories that seem somewhat related. We have some clear objectives we need to accomplish today, so while we may entertain the occasional random topic, don’t be surprised if we continually call the group back to the main discussion point at that time. For example, if we’re talking digital enhancements to the website, try not to bring up your biggest frustration with the compensation plan. Save that for another time.
7. I Get to Determine When We Move On.
This is my favorite one, because it basically says I’m in charge;-). Seriously, I will determine when we’re ready to move on, which may not be when you want to move on. It may be that we cut a discussion short in your perspective. As I’ve mentioned before, this session is all about getting feedback to help us at the Home Office make good decisions. Once I feel like we’ve gotten the feedback we need, I’ll move us along to the next topic so we can make the most of our time.
Advisory council meetings are so valuable, but they’re also so open to challenges. Too many direct selling companies hold these meetings, but they aren’t as deliberate in the planning and clear on their purpose as they need to be. I hope my thoughts and tips here can help with your next advisory council meeting.