Stumped by a business decision? Try a trusted adviser

Board members and external experts can be an important source of advice for CEOs, helping them grow their businesses – and themselves 
Advice Istock 1431114913

There’s a lot weighing on CEOs right now, from an economic downturn to major technological changes.

That’s why plenty of leaders are turning to trusted advisers to help them guide their businesses through this turbulence. “The industries that we work in today are going through unprecedented changes. And nobody can know everything,” says James Saunders, CEO of property firm Quintain. 

Saunders is one such leader leaning on key advisers. He has been part of the senior team managing the redevelopment of Wembley Park, the area around Wembley Stadium in London, for 15 years, and became Quintain’s CEO in 2019. “This can be an isolating job at times,” he says. “You need people that are not in your hierarchy whom you can turn to on different occasions.”

It helps if a CEO’s cast of supporters can offer a broad range of skills. “It’s important to be able to reach out to individuals that have a different perspective and different experience to you,” Saunders explains. Alongside his board, Saunders’ advisers include architect Ricky Burdett, a professor of urban studies at LSE, and Sir David Higgins, who oversaw the construction of venues for the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

This can be an isolating job. You need people who are not in your hierarchy that you can turn to on different occasions

“Ricky is what I would call a critical friend,” Saunders says. “We share our plans with him, and he’ll tell me exactly what he thinks.” Higgins, on the other hand, has advised Quintain on dealing with regulation and inflation.

And they’re not the only sources of external help that Saunders has relied upon. During Covid, for instance, he felt that he and his team would benefit from working with executive coach Karen Kennedy. She helped them become a “more functioning” team, he says, as well as serving as a sounding board for Saunders himself. 

Some of the team continue to work with Kennedy, but Saunders currently does not. “It was a very positive learning experience for me and for others, but sometimes it’s good to pause in your relationship with advisers, consider what you want and then re-engage. Every couple of years in this business is a new chapter,” he says.

How executive coaches steer careers

David Edmonds is an executive coach who has been a trusted adviser to many leaders, most of whom turn to him for help with career growth and mindset. 

“Once a person becomes CEO, there can be a sense of having reached the top of the tree. And that’s when personal growth might stall and it becomes about protecting what they have rather than building on it,” Edmonds says. 

Of course, choosing whom to confide in can be easier said than done. For instance, it can be difficult for CEOs to be honest with other board members about their concerns, for fear of getting something wrong or damaging their reputation, Edmonds explains. 

“We don’t want our leaders to be vulnerable; we want the illusion that they have the answers to everything,” he says. “We don’t want to hear that they’re scared or they’re unsure, or they haven’t got a clue what they’re going to do next.” A trustworthy person outside the chain of command – and who will keep things confidential – can help here. 

How funding can complicate the relationship

When it comes to choosing an adviser, CEOs need to be aware of what that person’s agenda might be, says Shawn Kreloff, a longtime entrepreneur who sold his first company in a stock-for-stock deal valued at around $100m (£80m) in 1998. 

This is particularly true when picking private equity partners, Kreloff says, as the relationship will be both strategic and personal. “My instincts have led me well over the years – if something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually for a reason. Money is a very powerful magnet, especially when people are trying to give you money, so just be wary. Read the terms carefully.”

Non-executives and paid senior advisers need to declare the other businesses they’re involved with

Kreloff’s latest venture is Bioenergy Devco, a firm which finances, constructs and operates anaerobic digestion plants. “The kind of private equity partners who are backing me now are bringing a different level of experience and guidance,” he says of his investors. “Choose your partners wisely – it’s almost like getting married.”

Saunders agrees that due diligence is essential here. “Non-executives and paid senior advisers often have a portfolio of businesses that they advise, so they need to declare the other businesses they’re involved with. And if they’re bringing you a business opportunity from their other relationships, they need to be open with you.”

Why you need to match the adviser to the problem

For Rafael Museri, CEO and co-founder of Selina, a hospitality group which operates hotels with co-working spaces and experience programmes, there are four types of adviser he turns to when making difficult decisions: his management board, select employees, trusted friends, and family members.

“CEOs always need to think about who are the true, independent, non-conflicted people around you, especially to give you the best advice at the most sensitive moments,” he says. 

Each of Museri’s adviser types will serve a different function in different circumstances. “If your job is to project confidence to your people – because that’s what’s expected from you in a difficult time – but deep inside you’re scared, then usually friends and family will be the main advisers in those situations,” Museri says. 

On the other hand, showing vulnerability to your employees can sometimes be beneficial, he adds. “As I become more mature, I’ve learned that transparency, showing your weaknesses and talking about them openly can sometimes give people more confidence about you as a manager.”

Selina went public in October, and Museri’s focus now is on becoming profitable, he says. That’s the basis of most of the questions he’s asking his advisers right now. “Here the board is the best source of advisers,” he says. “Each of them is smarter, stronger and more disciplined than me. They’re doing a very good job in really putting the right pressure on management, but at the same time helping.”

Equally though, decisions sometimes have to be made on instinct. Selina is neither simply a hotel chain nor solely a co-working company, and has no global competitors, Museri says, meaning it’s not always possible to seek advice from similar operators or experienced peers. “If you’re trying to be a disruptor in your industry, you’re doing something new, so you’ll have to trust your instinct. You can’t constantly seek advice, because there are endless decisions you need to make per day.”