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    How to manage dominant advisory board members

    Dominant advisors can greatly influence the outcome of a pharmaceutical advisory board meeting. While they can stimulate other advisors to think more creatively, they can equally disrupt the flow of the meeting and stifle discussion. How these dominant advisors are managed can determine the success of a meeting and the reputation of the meeting sponsors and organizers.

    A client of ours tells the story of one of his early advisory board meetings, which was derailed by a dominant advisor, Dr. Jones, a world renowned clinician and researcher.  Dr. Jones frequently redirected the meeting and interrupted others, precluding the contributions of other advisors. As a result, many of the meeting's key objectives were left unmet. Moreover, the sponsor failed to benefit from the creativity and experience of the full complement of advisors.

    About a year later, the client was referred to me to help create an advisory board meeting focused on the potential clinical utility of a new product in development. Advisors of the highest stature were sought. When I suggested inviting the world renowned Dr. Jones, with whom I had worked before, the client shuddered. "Dr. Jones is brilliant, but he's very disruptive, and he would ruin the meeting," he said. I convinced the client that "working with" Dr. Jones would be well worth the effort.

    Here was our approach. First, I called Dr. Jones to seek his advice and support for the meeting, inviting him to serve as a sort of chairperson. In my role as the moderator, he agreed to facilitate participation among the other advisors, especially the less outspoken experts. If he could wait while I asked others for their opinions, I would then turn to him to identify gaps and help summarize their input. At breakfast, right before the meeting, I approached him to review and remind him of this role, reiterating my sincere appreciation for his promotion of others' contributions.

    The meeting was a success. Dr. Jones seemed delighted in his role as chairperson and he was able to praise his colleagues' input before introducing his own great ideas. In turn, the other advisors felt valued, freely expressing their opinions. We accomplished the key meeting objectives and more. And the client shined in front of his management for organizing a highly valuable advisory board meeting.

    Here are five suggestions for managing dominant advisors to maximize the value of their contributions and reduce the likelihood of meeting disruption.

    1. Recruit advisors of similar status:  Advisors of similar professional stature are more likely to participate in group discussion and less likely to defer to a dominant advisor.
    2. Seek input before the meeting:  Recognize the expertise and value of the dominant advisor before the meeting by seeking their advice on advisor recruiting, pre-reading materials, and discussion questions.
    3. Establish a clear role: Whether or not you've asked the dominant advisor to serve as chairperson, his or her role at the meeting should explicitly include facilitating the participation of other advisors.
    4. Use a strong moderator: The moderator must be prepared to tactfully interrupt and redirect the discussion as often as required to keep the meeting on track.
    5. Express appreciation. In addition to the normal meeting acknowledgements, privately acknowledge the dominant advisor's cooperation and collaboration.

    Dominant advisors like Dr. Jones often present challenges to the execution of an effective advisory board meeting. I could have asked Dr. Jones not to interrupt his colleagues while they were speaking, an approach that would run the risk of offending him. I chose instead to appeal to his leadership skills and experience in the field; attributes that brought value to the advisory board and served the client's goals. By soliciting his input and defining his role before the meeting-and sharing my sincere and personal gratitude afterwards-Dr. Jones emerged as a true asset to the client.  Oh, and I now have a client for life.


    Stephen D. Lande, PhD is President of Interactive Forums, Inc., a strategic advisory research firm founded in 1996. He has used his training and experience in clinical and experimental psychology and 19 years of working with life sciences companies to create advisory board meetings that foster engagement and productivity of expert advisors and maximize the value of their collaboration.