As regulation and commodification squeeze their retail banking business, many financial institutions are refocusing on their wealth management and commercial banking departments and emphasizing relationship-fueled growth.

One tool some are using to jump-start this strategy is an advisory board. As expert advisers without the legal strings attached, advisory boards can offer a valuable way to tap into broad knowledge and leverage connections in the community.

Institutions such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank use advisory boards to develop a wider network of business leaders who can lend counsel on sales, markets, and global expansion. Research suggests this approach pays off: Banque du Canada found that sales growth accelerated for Canadian businesses that instituted an advisory board. In the first three years after an advisory board was set up, sales grew 66.8%, compared with 22.9% growth over the three years prior.

How are advisory boards helping banks bolster their wealth management and commercial banking?

Advice on entering new markets. Advisory boards have helped financial institutions understand the competitive landscape, which products and services to offer, how to stand out from the crowd and which people to hire. This can save years in marketing time and costs, and increase the rate of business growth.

Northern Trust used an advisory board when it started offering wealth management in the Cleveland area and found it highly effective. The advisors helped identify potential clients and shared what those clients cared about and how to cater to them.

Global insights. B of A established an advisory board of multinational business, academic and public-policy leaders in 2013 to tap for advice on trends and opportunities worldwide, with its CEO, Brian Moynihan, as chair. "Bank of America has relationships with clients who compete in every region of the globe," Moynihan said at the time. "We thank our Global Advisory Council leaders for sharing their perspective, experience, and judgment, which will help make us a better partner for the clients we serve."

Client connections. At Goldman Sachs, two members of its Mid-Atlantic Women's Advisory Council (for women in the $75 million-to-$100 million income range) became new clients of the firm. For a Goldman event featuring economist Abby Joseph Cohen, the advisors all put their names on the invitation and asked high-net-worth couples to attend. These are just some of the valuable ways advisory boards can be leveraged.

What follows are several tips for creating an effective advisory board.

Get buy-in. Like any major initiative, an advisory board requires buy-in from senior management. Claudia Kotchka, a former vice president of design, innovation and strategy at Procter & Gamble who created and managed the company's Design Advisory Board put it this way: "A culture that embraces new ideas has to start at the top."

Make the "job" attractive. Selecting the right mix of advisory members is hugely important. Among the reasons they cite for participating: they meet interesting people, find the dialogue stimulating, learn about the industry they are advising and get the opportunity to share their insights and experience.

Customize the board to your needs. Advisory boards vary in how frequently they meet and how long members serve. Short terms can be desirable to facilitate changes to the mix of expertise and personalities. An advantage of longer terms is that members become acclimated to each other and develop the trust necessary for honest dialogue.

Make the most of meetings. Advisors should receive briefing materials before the meeting, including key questions to keep in mind while reading. Presentations to advisory boards should be well edited, free of jargon and designed to stimulate thinking. Action items should be distributed quickly after meetings.

Susan Stautberg is president and Edward Stautberg is managing director at PartnerCom, which assembles and manages boards globally.