Building Your Support System: How to Use Advocates and Brain Trusts

How to Use Advocates and Brain Trusts - Building Your Support System

“No man is an island,” or so says a famous quote. Translating that into today’s business environment, we would conclude that we don’t build a successful business alone. In a previous article, we discussed mentors as part of a good support system. Now let’s take a look at two other important components:

  • Advocates
  • Brain trusts

What are they and how can they help you move ahead?

Advocates are people who will speak on your behalf. They’ll help to create a positive perception of you among prospective clients and in the general business community. An advocate talks about your skills, your strong points, and champions your cause.

You may be thinking this sounds a lot like a mentor and in some respects, you’re right. A good advocate can give you advice and trigger creative thinking about how to build your business. However, there is one important difference: a mentor is someone you probably meet with privately, while an advocate goes public. Advocates look for opportunities to speak up about you among their own peers, business associates, and even in their social circle. They introduce you to people who might be potential clients or valuable business contacts.

How do you find advocates? (And yes, you can certainly have more than one.) Look around you at the organizations you belong to, whether it’s Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, the PTA, or the museum board. Look for high profile individuals, people who are known and respected in the community. Get acquainted with these people if you don’t already know them well. Invite them for coffee. Share your business goals, your accomplishments, and your portfolio. Then ask, “Would you be willing to talk about my skills and expertise to people you know?”

Brain trusts, also sometimes called power groups or accountability groups, are defined by The Free Dictionary as “A group of experts who serve, usually unofficially, as advisers and policy planners.” Some of these groups are formal. You can pay to join them, either face-to-face or online. However, based on our experience, you might be better served to form your own group so you can structure it in a way that works for you. Here’s a brief description of what an effective brain trust needs, based on our experience with similar groups.

  • Like-minded people
  • Non-competitive
  • Commitment and accountability
  • Measurable goals
  • Regular schedule

Start by looking for like-minded people. If you want to put your business on the fast track, don’t invite plodders to be part of your brain trust. It’s a good idea to look for a feeling of compatibility, to include people that you enjoy being around. Think of this group as a partnership of equals. It’s better to have a leaderless group, where no one plays a dominant role.

A brief word about the size of your brain trust: usually four to six people is about right, and as we continue to discuss group logistics, you’ll see why. Basically, it’s a matter of time. Your meetings need structure, everyone needs a chance to have their say, and if the group gets too large, there can be time pressures that leave some members feeling short-changed.

It’s a good idea to keep the group non-competitive, which means not inviting people who are in your company or even your profession. The group needs to have a strict privacy policy—what’s said in the group stays in the group—so that it’s a safe place to discuss any and all business issues. People don’t want to feel they are giving away trade secrets and there is value in getting outside perspectives as well.

Commitment and accountability are very important in a brain trust. This means that whatever meeting schedule you set up, everybody shows up. If one group member misses half the meetings, the group dynamic changes. When the group is formed, it’s a good idea to make a time commitment for how long you’ll stay together. A three to six-month startup period usually works well, after which you can evaluate to see if you want to keep going as you are, disband, or change direction. Groups that stay together for five years or more are not unusual. Why? Because you accomplish more when  you know others are supporting you and holding you accountable.

Your group needs measurable goals. This means that in the beginning, each member says, “I’m at Point A now and in three months I want to be at Point B.” That can mean anything from a sales figure goal to a job or career change. Then in each meeting, each member sets an interim step toward that goal and reports their progress at the next meeting.

Meeting on a regular schedule is very important. The group should agree on a time and place that works for everyone and keep it consistent. Some groups meet weekly, some every other week. A monthly meeting is not as effective, because accountability can deteriorate and you can lose momentum.

You are not alone. And if you are, you shouldn’t be. Look around you for potential advocates and brain trust members, and watch your business kick into high gear.

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