Should leaders join a peer environment group?

It’s lonely at the top; that’s one of the oldest truisms about leadership. It’s difficult to speak to anyone honestly. Trust is hard to come by. Even fewer understand a leader’s experiences.

To overcome this isolation, many leaders resort to formal or informal peer groups; many wonder what are the benefits of joining one?

Peer environments are a place for leaders to connect, think and grow; they are professionally led, with veteran executives as moderators – and are highly confidential. For an inside look at these groups, several members of one of the most prominent executive leadership programs have agreed to share their experiences exclusively with the Leadership Lab. Here are eight of the most common questions asked about these organizations:

1. Is it confidential?

“If you think about how I run my business, essentially, in a way, the peer environment is group therapy for CEOs,” said Hildy Abrams, CEO of Gourmet Settings, a table and flatware designer and manufacturer. “You’re sharing your challenges in a trusting confidential atmosphere – that’s what group therapy is.”

“My group helps me think about how I can grow, how I can motivate people, how I can compensate them,” Abrams contends. “I just feel like it’s so special to be in the company of these fantastic people in my group who are such great business people. That’s part of it too – a little of it might rub off.”

2. Can you really be honest?

“As president, you lack peers within the company. You lack people to talk to who are like-minded, with a similar understanding of what you’re going through,” said Dean “Undercover Boss” Johnson, CEO of Sodexo Canada, the foodservice and facilities management company. “I was cautious for the first few meetings, but came to realize it was a place where I could be really transparent and honest about my experiences,” he added.

3. Can it change your leadership style?  

“You are asked about what kind of a leader you want to be, what kind of leader you think you are and how you want to be perceived,” Johnson explained. “Through various leadership 360 assessment tools, we were able to take the feedback back into our peer advisory teams and share some of the opportunities and challenges before us.  In my case the results were at odds with the way I saw myself, shockingly so.”

4. How can you change?

Using the 360 tools within the context of a peer advisory team is extremely valuable. Rather than simply leaving the 360 in a drawer, members share each other’s results –creating learning and peer pressure to change oneself for the better.

“I took the 360 to heart, made some real changes and am no longer at odds with who I think I am as a leader,” he added. “Today, I’m a cheerleader, I’m there to set the strategy, define the vision and get the right people around me. I make sure the right structure is in place for accountability, communication, and transparency and then I delegate, support and cheer my people on.”

“The leadership impact exercise we did was a turning point for me. The profile of a leader has changed 360 degrees and everyone at the workshop shared those insights. From a personal leadership development perspective, it was one of the biggest things that I did that triggered me to change and think about how I would lead differently,” he added.

5. Are there special capabilities within groups?

“There are industry capabilities within groups, but equally important is having a diverse group of leaders,” said Sarah Beech, president of Pal Benefits, the benefit, retirement and compensation consultants. “We want to learn what others do in different industries.  We want them to think innovatively and outside of the box.  Diversity drives innovation.”

6. Do you know what will happen in advance? Is there an agenda?

“It is free form; you do not know,” Beech added. “If someone takes up the whole time, we are all happy with it. The real value in the meeting has been about the immediacy of a problem. Sometimes in a business planning cycle, we say now it’s your turn to share your business plan with us and ask for input on where can it be better, how could you get your point across in a more succinct and successful way?”

7. What is the greatest benefit that you derive?

“Many of us have lunch outside or get together at various times,” Beech said. “The community is something that one doesn’t expect to find when joining a peer advisory team. The relationships one develops both within a group or in the community are invaluable to not only developing as a better leader but also assist your organization to grow.”

8. I am in a service business? It is all manufacturing types?

“There are a couple of service business leaders within our group, a few from the corporate and one from the non-profit sector.” Kimmel noted. She added that her group is “A crucial sounding board for key decisions I need to make – both for the business and personally speaking, for my own professional growth. I like the fact they are 10 years older and can provide me mentorship type advice.”

Finally, reflecting on other businesses and thinking outside of the box really helps in both a leader and an organization’s growth.  Some at first wonder where they will find the time – a half day per month to out of the office, away from day to day activities and to sit with often different leaders. How could it be possible to derive any benefit through these conversations?  Yet the simple step of changing modes of thinking becomes one of the biggest changes in leadership capacity.

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