In these challenging times, do small business leaders need a savvy advisor, someone with whom they can speak confidentially about problems?
Many company heads join CEO peer groups, also called roundtables or forums. They generally include eight to 15 people from different industries who meet monthly to talk about everything from how to handle a difficult employee to why a marketing plan isn’t working.
There are a plethora of groups using a variety of approaches and charging different fees. While bigger organizations charge up to $1,000 a month, home-ground roundtables can be free. Some are for-profit, others nonprofit, while still others are run as franchises.
Here are four questions to ask before deciding which group to join:
Who is in the group?
It’s essential that no potential competitors are in the same group. Otherwise, you’re going to be less willing to open up, a key element to creating an atmosphere of trust. It is best when industries are mixed. Take Cheng Ong, who runs Tydas, a New York City and San Francisco-based IT consulting firm. He co-founded a CEO group five years ago that includes an event planner, a company selling point of sales systems, a marketing firm and a sausage manufacturer. Also, the more diverse the group, the greater the likelihood you’ll get input that might challenge your way of thinking - and provide new insights as a result.
You also want to be in a group with leaders who run companies of a similar size or at the same stage of development. According to Ong, the businesses in his forum have about $1 million to $10 million in revenues. “Insights and advice are more meaningful when they come from people running companies with the same span of control,” says Ric Franzi, who runs Critical Mass for Business, a franchise of Renaissance Executive Forums in Costa Mesa, Cal.
Do you want a professional facilitator?
Some groups have management specialists who act as full-time meeting facilitators. At Vistage International, for example, these professionals also meet one-on-one with members at other times during the month. But other groups, like Entrepreneurs’ Organization, are run by the members themselves, who generally rotate the responsibility. You should decide which option you’re comfortable with and whether you’re willing to act as a facilitator.
Do you like the group’s approach?
The basic discussion format differs from one organization to the next. Some have strict rules about how members can talk to each other. For example, in some situations, leaders are not allowed to offer direct advice. Instead, comments have to be posed in terms of members’ own experiences and how they handled relevant situations. “That’s better because if you choose not to follow their directive, it’s difficult to come to the next meeting and tell them you dismissed their ideas,” says Barbara Aras, a Cincinnati-based facilitator for Women Presidents’ Organization. On the other hand, plenty of groups have no such rules and allow a healthy exchange of pointed advice.
Regardless, you need to make sure that members aren’t allowed to dominate the conversation and, if there’s a facilitator, he or she doesn’t talk too much. “There’s a delicate balance,” says Dino Signore, program development manager at Edward Lowe Foundation, which has a program that it licenses to organizations interested in starting CEO groups.
Are you comfortable with the selection process? You’ll probably be asked to attend a regular meeting. It’s a good way for you and the members to see whether you’re an appropriate fit. Then, current members may discuss their assessment with their facilitator, who makes the final decision. At other places, it’s more democratic: Members vote.