Have you ever considered joining a peer executive group? It’s tempting.
These small groups are normally comprised of local CEOs, business owners and leaders, who meet regularly to discuss their professional and personal challenges in a confidential and informal setting. Some of these groups are formed organically. But many others are initiated through national groups such as Vistage International, Entrepreneur’s Organization, YPO and Peer Executive Groups.
Popular? You could say that. Vistage alone boasts more than 22,000 members in 20 countries, and the Entrepreneur’s Organization says it has a global network of more than 14,000 members across 193 chapters worldwide.
The benefits of belonging to an executive group can be significant.
“For me, it’s like an outside advisory board that has no personal agenda, other than to help the other members,” says David Keiser, an owner and vice president at Tioga Pipe, a family-owned distributor in Philadelphia. “My group members are smart people who listen, get to know you and your business, and that’s a tremendous thing.” Keiser has belonged to his executive group for more than 21 years.
Like many, Keiser’s group meets 11 to 12 times a year and is made up mostly of the owners of established manufacturers, distributors and service providers in the area, none who compete with him. The best groups give members the opportunity to meet and learn from fellow business owners in an informal setting that is usually moderated by an experienced facilitator, often assigned by the national organization. The meetings are usually conducted in fellow members’ offices, homes or neutral locations such as hotel conference rooms.
At a meeting, you won’t get any magic solutions to your business problems. But you’ll hear from fellow members what they’re doing to find, pay and motivate their employees. Or how they save on taxes and keep themselves productive.
You’ll also likely learn about ways they control expenses and what goes into their investment decisions. They’ll also likely share how they get new business, keep existing customers, and grow their companies. And you’ll be doing the same with them.
“There is no ‘school’ on how to be, perform or act as a president of a company,” Keiser says. “But there are few issues that at a presidential level group someone hasn’t experienced ... whether it be hiring, interviewing, termination, growth initiatives, strategy, culture, selling, financial decision-making, etc.”
The best groups are ones whose members trust each other enough to bounce thoughts and solicit advice without fear of being judged or having their ideas stolen.
Gerry Frey, a co-founder of Priority Rental in Aston, has an informal group that he set up with friends and other business owners who have met regularly for more than eight years. “We have a confidential agreement and I am unable to give any details about the members,” he says. “But I will tell you that they are all well-educated individuals that operate with a strong work ethic and high level of integrity.”
Frey says his group has helped him find the best talent, hold himself accountable, and let him focus on his core business while maintaining his work and life balance. He believes that a good executive group would benefit all business leaders “no matter what phase of their business life.”
But is every business owner a strong candidate for an executive group? Definitely not.
“You have to be willing to listen,” says Dan Crowley, president of Bethlehem-based Peer Executive Groups. “Our groups become quite intimate with each other, sharing family matters and key employee concerns. It is taken quite seriously, but what is discussed at a meeting stays at the meeting.”
Crowley says he believes that successful owners never do it alone, and that to succeed you need to “surround yourself with smart, experienced people and then act on their advice.”
Belonging to an executive group takes a commitment. You’ll need to be prepared to meet regularly - likely once month but at least two times a year - and share the most intimate details about your business, including financial results and internal problems. You’ll be expected to attend national and regional meetings, too.
You’ll also need to spend some money. National peer executive organizations not only have entry requirements (based on company revenues or employee size) but they can also charge as much as $1,000 to $2,000 a month to participate.
Some owners, such as Frey, have created their own, ad-hoc groups online or with friends or have joined similar groups sponsored by their industry associations which often are part of their memberships.
Do I belong to such a group? No. It’s not that I haven’t been asked on multiple occasions. It’s just that my job requires significant travel. I don’t believe I can make the time commitment, and I wouldn’t want to let my fellow group members down.
But each year I reconsider this. Because the time I spend with a few fellow business owners may provide me with a much higher value than being on an out-of-town client project that day.