The Power of Peers (Goldberg on Leadership)

Late in July, I was privileged to watch something remarkable. As an observer only, I was in the room with a group of 14 CEOs who spent the afternoon advising, coaching, prodding and brainstorming.

This was not a board of directors or community project. It was a peer advisory board. These men and women were helping each other through some of the toughest business challenges I have ever heard (and as an executive coach, I hear some challenges that would curl your toes).  

The group had been meeting monthly for more than a year with the help of a facilitator. I could see that the members had developed a mix of trust, chemistry and a certain hard-nosed impatience for hair-on-fire thinking and mayonnaise-sandwich responses. The quality of problem-solving, honest feedback and accountability I saw in that room was nothing short of remarkable.

Recently, the Harvard Business Review featured a story about how lonely it is to be the CEO. The article echoed what anyone who's been a leader or run a company knows well: It's isolating at the top. The Review's research showed that up to 70 percent of CEOs, owners and top company leaders reported feeling isolated and often insulated from critical information. Again, from my view as an executive coach, I can tell you that to some extent the other 30 percent aren't paying attention.

Each promotion an executive receives provides more organizational power, but not necessarily more trust. It is, therefore, less likely that executives will get unvarnished and unedited truth from anyone.

This is especially true nearer the top of the organization, where the stakes get higher. The execs in the top chairs, especially the CEO, are too often insulated from what is really happening in the organizations that they lead. After all, whom does a CEO talk with who has no conflicting interest or agenda? Vendors want to preserve their business. Board members (especially board members) have strong opinions about how the company should be run. Customers generally have an angle for pricing or discounts. Consultants are attached to a solution - and to continued billings. Even a spouse has an agenda.  

In most businesses, no one speaks truth to power. And the modern CEO generally cannot, as Shakespeare's Henry V does, walk among his troops anonymously. So while the old saw says it is lonely at the top, it can actually be downright toxic.

So imagine the value of a dozen or so peers, none of whom compete or have serious vendor relationships, all of whom are sworn to confidentiality and all of whom are committed to each member of the group's success.

As a facilitator, I can tell you that this is a dream come true. The group does the heavy lifting and quickly hits stride to be inspiring, creative and tough-minded with each other. The members of the group I observed were in a wide range of businesses - from commercial coatings to transportation to banking. Their businesses ranged in size from a $5 million family business to a publicly traded technology firm with a $1 billion market cap.

What they all had in common was that they understood the value of 14 "consultants" who had no conflict of interest, each of whom had walked a mile in their shoes as CEO. The quality of work that arose from the day was remarkable. And the check-ins with those who had brought challenges to the group in the previous months showed that the work had impact.

There are a few organizations that create such peer circles, ranging from the Young Presidents' Organization to Vistage International. None is free and the YPO and Vistage both require an investment of money and time each month.

Based on the latest data, average tenure of a CEO in one of these groups is well over seven years. We have a YPO chapter in Little Rock. By way of full disclosure, I need to say that the group I observed was Vistage - and based on what I observed at that meeting, I am planning to start a Vistage group here. The work I saw happening was that solid.

(I. Barry Goldberg is managing director of Entelechy Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm headquartered in Little Rock. Goldberg holds an advanced certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University. He can be reached at Barry.Goldberg@EntelechyPartners.com.)