Advice that’s Worth Its Weight in Gold


Mike Skinner of The Advisory Group

Story by Norris Krueger
Photos by Emma Thompson

Mike Skinner knows a thing or two about mentoring. An Idaho native, this managing partner and principal at The Advisory Group (TAG) has built a long and successful career as a leader in consumer product and retail services organizations, and he now shares his expertise with CEOs of mid-level Northwest companies.

I first met Mike when he visited Boise with his former colleague Gregg Kaplan, and they shared the hilarious story of the birth of RedBox, those now- ubiquitous DVD on demand rental kiosks. Mike was then president of Coinstar, and Gregg was spinning up RedBox. Some of the major motion picture studios were skeptical about the business model at first, so RedBox had to start small. They had to stock the RedBoxes manually by loading their carts up with new releases at local big box stores to get the DVDs as soon as they came out. The image seems hilarious, but most of the audience missed Mike’s and Gregg’s real point: Start small, figure out the customer price point, and get the product right before investing a lot of money in the business.  Getting the unit economics right will always make the difference in your long-term success.

Mike brings that same spirit to The Advisory Group (TAG), a consulting firm that works primarily with privately-held, often family-owned businesses with a median $70 million in revenues. TAG serves as your advisory board, helping to drive growth and profitability while supporting the CEO as he or she expands the capabilities of the organization’s leadership teams. Mike told me “It’s not us doing the work, but us empowering the CEO to do it.” TAG has been remarkably successful, on average raising a company’s return on investment (ROI) by 10+ percent. As an entrepreneur, I keep Mike at the top of my personal go-to list for advice, even if he does nudge me gently in hard directions now and then. I sat down with Mike to talk to him about the importance of mentoring in business success.

GB: What makes a good mentor?

MS: Good mentors stay in their lane and don’t oversell their expertise/experience. Good mentors find the right help for the CEO even if it’s not them.

 GB: What should I know/ask/do to see if a mentor is right for me?

MS: Fit. Look for relevant experience–what does your venture need, really? Do your homework on potential mentors and start with a deep look inside the firm. There’s a lot of free advice out there, but you will listen more and act more if it’s a paid engagement. TAG is fee-for-service firm, not an equity partner, as we want the long-term upside to belong to the client, not us.

Accountability. It’s up to the CEO and his/her leadership team to implement the strategic plan, so accountability is imperative. With your mentors, build an accountability process. It’s okay to pivot when needed, but don’t drift. That means finding a patient mentor who’s in it for the long haul.

GB: How do we grow good mentoring in Boise and in Idaho?

MS: Build the talent pool broadly. The “bench” here in Boise is very shallow: How many people have serious executive experience in any domain? Also, there are relatively few people who have actually lived the CEO life. We need to take better advantage of the executives and proven business leaders moving here.

GB: What’s one thing that we can do to grow the ecosystem for businesses here?

MS: Many companies spend a lot of money before getting their unit economics and business model right. You should spend a little to learn a lot (see the RedBox story). How many leaders actually understand the dynamics of their competitive arena? It’s important to hold everyone accountable, especially yourself.

GB: What would you like to do to help Idaho and how can we help you?

MS: This is TAG’s intent, to work with people where we can have material effect on them and on the local economy. We want to build TAG further and find experienced leaders who appreciate and “get” our model. And, of course, one way to help is to provide  introductions to the firms in our wheelhouse!