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Leverage The Power of Your Peers

Aug 17, 2007
It seems like we all learn better in groups. In school, from kindergarten to graduate school, you worked on projects in teams or groups. You always seemed to learn more from your peers than when you listened to an instructor droning on about a particular subject.

What we all learn talking with and listening to our peers can provide amazing insights. And if these peer groups meet regularly we can really leverage our business strengths. Conducting ongoing conversations with our peers really works.

If you are the owner, successor, or manager of a business you know that what you're doing is rewarding.
However it can also be an overwhelming and often isolating experience.

This is particularly true in small to mid-size businesses: Owners can become more and more isolated with every new challenge, lacking an impartial and confidential place to frankly discuss the issues and concerns of his or her company.

One of the best ways to handle that isolation is through peer groups.

Whether meeting via teleconference or in person, peer groups provide business leaders and managers with an opportunity to honestly and openly discuss their goals, while helping other people solve their problems in the process.

Peer groups provide a safe, supportive environment in which peers can share ideas, voice concerns and challenges, and receive ongoing support to keep on track to meet goals. You get more out of discussing someone else's issue in a constructive manner than you do talking about your own. And the other members feel the same - creating the ideal collaborative environment for growth.

Many times, in the world of family businesses, secrecy is so much a part of the business history that those at the top of the company rarely look outside the company for advice. Or, perhaps they are seen as leaders in their industry or their associations-- they may feel it would be inappropriate or disadvantageous to seek advice from their peers within the industry.

A peer group made up of business owners from across the country, in a variety of industries with a variety of backgrounds, allows businesspeople to share concerns and get feedback from ideas that they would be unable or unwilling to discuss with people in their own industry. That atmosphere, with its strict confidentiality, allows members to air their challenges in a different way and get advice from others on a number of issues.

Since group members are developing their own businesses in different ways, with different goals and timeframes, a peer group is often able to provide members with cutting edge business strategies from people across the country or around the corner - people experiencing the same things differently.

Effectiveness development for business people is a never-ending story. I believe the best way to achieve effectiveness is through an ongoing strategic conversation with peers.

Whether these discussions are organized and moderated, or simply an ad hoc meeting of the minds, it is the ongoing nature of these peer discussions that allows them to deal with learning in a systematic way, putting out fires as they arise while developing future strategies for business growth.

As a peer group participant and facilitator, I can attest first hand to their effectiveness as a business development and problem-solving tool. It is the development of these long-term supportive relationships that is critical to the process: Knowledge and strategy are, in the final analysis, not nearly as important as the relationships between people enthusiastically supporting one another. That support is truly what makes peer groups so incredibly powerful.

There are essentially 2 ways of learning. One way is by practicing and getting feedback, or by acting, and then and measuring the success or failure of the act.

The other is by talking about ideas, digesting them, and thinking them through in an ongoing conversation. Discussion illuminates. In a peer group environment, it creates a common understanding of different concepts through the different perspectives each of us brings to the table.

Everyone helps everyone else gain a better understanding. We help each other figure out where we are right now, where we want to go in the future, create action plans, and then we hold each other accountable for our goal setting through continual review, discussing what's working and what's not, analyzing roadblocks, and more. Its an ongoing process of helping one another, and gaining the insight necessary to help ourselves.

The objective of a peer group is to create a comfortable environment where participants can share strategies and thoughts, as well as to discuss their frustrations, in a non-competitive atmosphere.

That non-competitive atmosphere may include people in the same industry but from different geographic locations, or a mix of people from a variety of industries. Peer groups aren't about networking, and they are non-commercial by nature. Participating in a peer group is like being a part of and receiving ongoing assistance from -- a board of advisors and therapists.

Corporations call them focus groups. And they are. For businesspeople though, peer review teams offer the counsel of selected advisors- other business owners like themselves. Each has an appropriate point of view, skill sets and objectivity that clear our otherwise murky projections of favorable results and how to get them.

Anyone who has been around the boards of directors in family businesses and small- to mid-sized companies knows that, generally speaking, board members are insiders and they have their own agenda. The boards aren't always interested in providing or even in a position to provide regular, step-by-step instructions.

A peer group, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to access a sounding board of professionals without the insider concerns that invariably influence a company board of directors. Peer groups have no hidden agendas, just people with the same or greater experience helping other people.

The value of having a mix of members in varying fields is that it provides a cross-pollination of ideas. We all tend to get locked into our own ways of thinking about problems, solutions, and challenges. Often the best solutions are very clear to people who are not bound by those old ways of thinking, or by our own ingrained opinions about how to succeed in our given industry.

Most groups "meet" twice a month for an hour and a half teleconference. And if the members are from the same general area, they usually supplement their teleconferences with a quarterly in person session. The technological developments of the digital age have made it both easy and convenient to conduct meetings at a distance. Often groups will not meet in person for the first year or so after the group is formed.

From my experience as a group member and facilitator, once we meet face to face, I believe it changes the dynamic of the group. Groups always seem to work together very effectively without ever having met, but after when the members are able to meet, the level of effectiveness increased considerably. While I do believe that people can create successful peer group relationships without ever meeting in person, being able to put a face to a voice is certainly advantageous in the development of a relationship.

I've taken part in thousands of conference calls and people phrase things differently, they couch their thoughts in cogent sentences before they open their mouths, they're reluctant to cut each other off if they have a burst of an idea, and every time you hear a noise in the background, you're wondering which member of the conference isn't fully engaged. There's a trust issue there.

Each group develops uniquely, but there is one element that has been crucial in my experience: Commitment. Commitment to the group and the process is an absolute requirement if the peer group is to succeed. The members must be regularly willing to give of their time and their business acumen. If there is a facilitator, group members must also be committed to the ongoing investment of their money until they are ready to take over the group's management themselves.

These are commitments that will result in their own personal and business growth and their ability to make decisions. Whatever time, energy, and capital they invest is a direct investment in their own success.

There are as many different ways to organize a group's agendas, as there are groups. Supporting materials like books and articles on the topic at hand can prove useful here. Sessions can be structured around a source book or around study groups. The content can be supplied or developed in a number of ways. But in addition to the content, its the free exchange of ideas that is critical.

The benefit of having specific content is that it keeps focus and prevents the process from becoming just a gab session amongst business people. A principle value of the group process is that it helps each person ideas and solutions (or potential challenges) that are not apparent to them or that they may not have experienced themselves. A peer group helps people learn from the mistakes of others for a greater likelihood of success.

So what does the most effective peer group look like? It is one composed of business owners from the same industry, but located far enough apart that they are not direct competitors. Their meetings are facilitated professionally so that 100% of the time each member spends is on their and their peers growth, not on the management and housekeeping details that assure the group's momentum. And they meet together at least once of twice a year at their industries association events. It's a perfect scenario!
About the Author
Wayne Messick is the publisher of www.iBizresources.com If you are a business owner wanting to leverage what you are already doing right visit the Peer Groups area of our web site. If you are a business advisor wanting to maximize your potential, here are the strategies we are using to generate 3/4 of our new business .
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