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A Place Where The CEO Can Let It All Hang Out

by Alf Nucifora

They've been operating quietly for years, but the recent recession has brought them out of hiding and into the forefront. Advisory boards, or peer groups, comprised of chief decision-makers within the company, meet to discuss the mutual issues and concerns that confront them in the running of their businesses and, in true support group fashion, share experiences and dispense solutions. The groups generally convene under the guidance of a trained facilitator. Honesty and candor are the norm. Confidentiality is a mandate. Accountability is demanded. Every member's thinking is challenged. Over time, the group develops a sense of shared trust that allows each member to be himself/herself, and, with that trust, comes vulnerability, that leads to sharing, which results in learning.

Who Are The Players?

There are a number of small, regional organizations of the type throughout the country. Among the more significant outfits, the oldest and perhaps most well known, is the Young President's Organization (YPO), a group noted more for its social and networking activities rather than its business training legacy. Two of the largest and most well established for-profit players are TEC and Renaissance Executive Forums.

TEC (www.teconline.com), which is the largest in the world with 600 groups, representing 8,500 members in 14 countries, offers two group alternatives--the Chief Executive cohort, comprised of chief decision makers, primarily CEO's, president's, managing directors, owners, and principals, and the Key Manager sub-set comprised of next level, up-and-coming succession management within the company.

The average TEC group is comprised of 12-15 members, representing companies with average annual revenue of $45 million and 100 employees. Fourteen percent of the group membership is female. Industry representation is broad with the top categories representing manufacturing, services, retail/wholesale trade, finance, insurance, real estate, and construction. Representation is also on an exclusive basis, i.e., you won't find two accounting firms in the same group. Meetings are held monthly and often include outside trainers and experts. Non-attendance at the meetings is taboo. Most members remain active for three years.

Renaissance Executive Forums (www.executiveforums.com) mirrors the TEC experience. With 55 locations primarily in the US and Canada, Renaissance also facilitates the formation of groups or forums, each with 10-14 members. The profile is primarily mid-sized businesses with an average of $10-20 million in annual revenue and 10-25 employees. Members are primarily CEO's, presidents, and business owners representing companies in non-competing industries. Monthly meetings are facilitated with outside speakers and experts brought in to advise and train.

What Do They Discuss?

It's a lonely world at the top, particularly if you run a small-to-medium sized business where the resources and training traditionally available to the Fortune 1000 manager, are lacking. The issues run the gamut from the macro to the picayune and cover the full panoply of management concerns including how to get the senior management team on the same page, pricing, personnel, succession planning, compensation and finance, production, government regulation, controlling costs, increasing revenues and strategic planning. Says Walt Finkelstein, President of the Washington, D.C. - based Deep Learning Group, and an experienced group facilitator, "They need to grow their businesses. This means handling change and learning how to survive in a tough economy."

Why Do They Join?

The group dynamic helps alleviate that loneliness at the top. Members are exposed to different perspectives and, as a result, lower their business risk, which in turn leads to a much-sought-after peace-of-mind. Notes Jim Fontanella, President and Founder of Renaissance Executive Forums, "By tapping into the group wisdom, they are able to improve their decision-making ability and broaden their management expertise beyond their own limited experience. It's the best form of training in an arena where there are few programs on how to be a CEO."

The monthly meetings also provide a rare opportunity to get away from the office, the phone, the e-mail, the interruptions and the fires that consume so much of the day and act as barriers to long-range thinking about the business. It's a monthly retreat shared by like-minded habitués where the hair is let down, the angst unloaded and the solutions unearthed. Notes Finkelstein wryly, "They learn how to handle the demons."

Defining Success

Success varies depending upon the personality and composition of each group. But some success attributes are common across the board. There must be a willingness on the part of each member to share experiences and advice. Participation ultimately becomes personal as members grow comfortable in confronting their own (and each others) fears, concerns and vulnerabilities. Says Dan Barnett, COO of TEC, "For us, it's very much a matter of success, particularly in today's tough times." Barnett makes the claim that TEC members can validate their company's growth over time and with a rate of improvement that has outperformed the Fortune 500, the S&P and the Dow.

Advisory boards are not the answer for every business owner and manager. But for those who thrive on group experience and a team approach, peer learning of this type may well provide the most efficient and effective way to capture business success.

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