Whether you find advisors from family, friends, faculty or fellow managers, great advisors can become an informal resource that rivals that of more formal resources, including board members. You will certainly know when you’ve found such a treasure, almost always through introduction by others and rarely because you have deliberately approached someone to fill a needed hole. Most of these people will provide time for you out of friendship, rather than seeking reward in the form of stock options or pay for service. Therefore, it is important that you recognize their worth and be most careful not to overuse the gift of their time. “We work for food” is a common mantra for such friends who are willing to provide such informal services.
Are there any rules for the amount of time you might expect before stepping over the line? In my experience both seeking and providing such informal services, personal visits to a company for more than a short time before or after a lunch or dinner are fine. But a scheduled visit for more than a tour and meeting management is asking too much unless offered. These people are not about the pay, and the treasure of their advice is worth the careful use of time in its seeking.
[Email readers continue here…] The best use of informal advisors is through phone and emailed short requests for help with a specific issue, one that can be explained easily and rather quickly, and whose resolution may be complex, but with good advice, you can find the way through the problem more quickly and even validate your intuitive answers to a problem. These informal advisors will appreciate occasional updates in the form of emails just as you would email board members with news of progress. But such contacts should never be constant or frequent.
Of course, you are free to just drift away from such resources by stopping the calls and emails, most often without being missed and therefore without need to worry over the effect of your inaction. Such advisors, if providing concise and sage responses to questions well asked, are another valuable tool and one without a price tag.