Perspectives

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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Building a Brain Trust

January 15, 2020  |  By

Originally published in The Scholarly Kitchen on January 15, 2020

It’s often said, with what level of seriousness no one knows, that it’s lonely at the top. At first blush this seem melodramatic. After all, the heads of organizations are in an enviable position. They have been acknowledged for their talent and commitment, receive compensation that others can only dream of, experience the exhilaration of power, and have the satisfaction that their point of view will prevail. At the same time, however, top positions carry a great deal of responsibility and heads of organizations naturally seek help in making their decisions. As some of these decisions may have unwelcome implications for other members of the management team, and even for some members of the Board of Directors, the CEO or Executive Director may find themselves with no one to talk to. This is not the personal loneliness of, say, having to spend a holiday without friends or family but the professional loneliness — perhaps “isolation” is the better term — of having to exercise authority in a vacuum. For this reason, leaders feel the need to develop an informal network of advisors, a brain trust if you will, to gather ‘round the fire to discuss matters of importance.
Little boy playing with can phone connected by string, concept for talking to yourself

No doubt leaders have always had a group of intimate advisors, but the term “brain trust” appears to have come into usage around the beginning of the twentieth century, in part because of the interest in “trusts” or large economic entities. (My source here is Wikipedia, which I don’t fully, uh, trust.) The term was later applied by James Kieran to the advisors, centered at Columbia University, to FDR; much of what we now know as the New Deal stems from this group. The exact name is not important; what is important is that this group is at least in part distinct from formal governance structures. In some respects and instances, the brain trust may supersede the actual management team, providing counsel on difficult and even existential situations.

Let’s pause for a minute and discuss what a brain trust is not. While this informal advisory group (which may never meet together and whose members may not even know of the existence of the others in the group) may at times have a closer connection to the CEO than the management team or even the Board, a brain trust is not a secret, opaque organization, the “deep state” of an organization. Like the CEO themselves, the brain trust serves only the company and not any particular individual, including the CEO. This is especially important if members of the brain trust are compensated by the company. The brain trust exists to help the CEO make decisions and take action on behalf of the company, and the counsel of the brain trust is sought simply because no other structure is providing essential guidance.

The obvious question to ask is, but why don’t you simply use the management team? After all, CEO, you have put these people into their positions. You have VPs or Directors for Editorial, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Technology and heaven knows what else. Why give them positions of great responsibility only to ignore them when particularly difficult questions arise? There are several answers to this:

  • First and most importantly, there are some questions that cannot easily be discussed with even the executive staff. Suppose you are considering a significant reorganization of the management team, for example: Do you want to float that idea immediately in a public meeting or would you prefer to test some hypotheses with a trusted advisor first? Conferring with a brain trust may be a useful step prior to making an announcement.
  • Although I have described an organization above that is chockablock with Vice Presidents, many companies, especially those in the not-for-profit sector, simply don’t have the scale to afford such a broad and deep management team. Small university presses may have no business expertise beyond that of the Director, and even large companies may have a management group with a wide range of talent. The other issue with unbuttoning oneself to a member of the management group is that it could exacerbate the politics that bedevil all organizations and even diminish the ability of the head of the organization to assert leadership.
  • A management team may also have conflicts of interest with some initiatives that the CEO is contemplating. A decision to open or close an office, for example, could affect the span of authority of some members of the staff or change reporting relationships. An independent advisor can help the CEO develop their ideas before presenting them to the executive staff.
  • A management team may not have the necessary skill set to handle some items that have moved onto the CEO’s radar screen. What if the organization is considering the creation of a joint venture (JV) with another company, and this will be the organization’s first JV? Or what if there is a need to develop a footprint in China, but the staff is anchored in North America and Western Europe? While you may ultimately reach for an outside firm to assist in these matters, you may benefit from someone who has actually gone through some of these circumstances and who may be in a good position to recommend a consulting group.
  • Finally, there is the paradoxical problem that sometimes the staff disqualifies itself simply by being good at what they do. They have studied their market carefully, know all the ins and outs. But that very focus has cut them off from things that come in from left field. If we have learned anything about scholarly communications in the past ten years, it’s that almost everything important comes from left field. A trusted advisor can help articulate what should be looked at, and what should not, and when to bring in a professional consultant for a deeper examination with broader perspective.

What about the Board, though; isn’t providing this guidance their job? Some of the same issues that limit the management may also limit the helpfulness of the Board. I would point to the problem of not having the right skill set in particular, especially for not-for-profit boards. It’s not unusual for a society publisher, for example, to have to work with a Board on which no one has any relevant publishing or business experience.

Still feeling lonely, the CEO begins to look around for help. A company’s library and editorial boards provide little assistance here, as they are usually set up as (uncompensated) aids to operations. Where do you go for someone with experience and (gulp) wisdom to help you work on a particularly challenging problem?

This is where one’s personal network can play a key role. A good advisor may be a former boss, for example, who is likely to be more experienced than you. I had just such a connection some years ago when I was dealing with a series of difficult personnel problems. My former boss got on the phone with me with some frequency and walked me through how he would deal with these problems. A former boss may also be more direct with you, as the memory of your former subordinate position may linger. Another excellent advisor, an experienced library professional, helped me out when I was setting up my consulting business many years ago and guided me on the changing role of academic libraries. In this instance the individual had first approached me after I gave a presentation on digital publishing strategy. She handed me her card and said, call me if I can ever be of help. Yet another member of my personal brain trust was recommended to me by a very senior business executive, who was long retired. I had expressed concern about managing Board relations, and he put me in touch with a fellow old-timer, who as a paid consultant coached me on Board presentations and management.

I have found that many, if not most, brain trust relationships come about through personal referrals, but sometimes advisors are discovered through their writing or presentations. One technology entrepreneur solicited my help after reading some of my Scholarly Kitchen posts. He had a series of very specific questions. Over time our collaboration evolved into a Board seat.

However the brain trust is put together, and whether it is voluntary or a paid assignment, there are some common elements:

  • Trust. This cannot be emphasized enough. An advisor must be trustworthy. When a CEO shares some particularly vexing problems, they have to be assured that the advisor is acting in the best interests of the CEO and the company. Without trust an advisor is worthless.
  • Confidentiality. Confidentiality is essential for advisory roles. Such relationships may or may not involve signing an NDA (paid consultancies generally do), but all company information must be held in silence — putting the “trust” into “brain trust.”
  • A willingness to broker relationships. An advisor brings with them a network of relationships. At the appropriate time there may be a benefit in introducing the CEO to one or more members of that network. This has to be handled carefully, as confidentiality must not be compromised.
  • Humility. No one knows everything. Being invited to offer an opinion is not a reason to provide one. The fact is that we know what we know and nothing more; beyond that circle we can be curious and attentive, but not authoritative.
  • Don’t put your hands on the wheel of the car. The advisor sits in the passenger seat, providing navigation. The CEO drives the car. Don’t play the game of “If I were you . . . .” You are not them.
  • Respect different management styles. As an advisor you may be keen on team-building and workshops, but your advisee may operate better in one-on-one situations and with less public presence. Don’t expect that a cat can bark like a dog or that a dog secretly craves to be a cat.

As you build your brain trust, remember that eventually any advice that you accept will have to be implemented through the staff and reported up to the Board. To repeat the point I made at the outset, the advisor is not your personal advisor but the company’s, working privately with the company’s designated head. Building a brain trust can make a significant difference in a company’s development and outcome, even if it sometimes operates in private.

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