MANAGEMENT: Peers can teach you things you didn't know you didn't know

November 26, 2007

A friend and Q: bu s i n e s s owner has suggested I join a peer group or get a business coach. Given that my company is growing and making money, I'm not sure it makes sense. Your thoughts? B u s i n e s s A:coaches and peer groups are not just for those company owners who are experiencing problems. Some of the most accomplished and successful business owners believe their peergroup membership gives them a competitive advantage.

Peer groups are typically organized into one of two models: an industry model or a non-affiliated model. Industry models have members from the same industry or franchise and come from noncompetitive geographic markets. Groups range in size from five to 20 members and meetings take place quarterly or semiannually. Members work with other owners who have a direct understanding of their business. However, they also have a limited overall business viewpoint.

The non-affiliated model has members from the same geographic area but participants must come from non-competitive businesses. These groups generally range in size from eight to 16 members. While members might not completely understand each industry, they have a wider perspective on operating and managing a business.

The benefits from membership in a peer group are numerous. First, most groups meet in a half-day or day-long format. A common component of all groups is that they provide time for members to discuss and present their business issues and concerns with their peer owners. It has often been said that business owners have a very lonely position: They are expected to have all the answers, even when they don't know all the questions.

The ability to lay all your cards on the table with business peers who have no agenda other than helping you examine and reach the best decision to your problem or issue is invaluable. In my experience, the insight provided by a diverse group of owners helps deliver clarity and solutions that might not be found through internal examination alone.

Even if you receive quality advice from your attorney and your accountant, they rarely have direct experience in operating a business. Knowing how other company owners would approach your problem gives you perspective and lets you know that you are not alone when trying to reach an important decision.

An intended fallout from the discussions is learning about aspects of running your business that you have not yet encountered. Some say the toughest thing about running a business is not knowing what you don't know.

Often when a member brings an issue to the group, other members realize that they may have a future problem staring them in the face that they had not considered. By creating awareness through the group interaction, businesses can address issues before they actually experience them.

A peer group is also beneficial in that it creates an accountability path for members. If someone presents an issue, the group typically wants to see what progress has been made by the next meeting. Few people want to take the group's time presenting an issue and then not being able to report progress.

In addition to the group's influence in this regard, the group facilitator/coach is also charged with responsibility for helping make progress against stated goals. Most peer groups include a one- to twohour monthly one-on-one session between the facilitator/coach and the member. These sessions are designed to provide impetus to the company owner to work on those issues that have the greatest significance to the success of the business.

Think of it as time spent on the important versus the urgent. A good facilitator/coach will not only be a confidant and sounding-board, but will also strive to challenge the business owner and occasionally make them feel uncomfortable.

You have nothing to lose and much to gain by considering membership in a business-owner peer group. There are a number of qualified and competent groups in the market. Search them out and interview them to see which group will meet your needs.

Clegg is president of CEO Partners, a consulting firm serving owner-managed businesses. He can be reached at 450-0262; dclegg@comcast.net.
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