The peer group advantage | Mike Cook

“Social bonds are the most powerful predictors of life satisfaction.”

 – Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone”

The title of this article should probably be “The Peer Group Opportunity.” “Advantage” really undersells the profound nature of the topic I have in mind for today and its value to business owners, CEOs and general managers.

All of us are intuitively aware of the value peer support provides in the personal context, but most likely not, however, its value in business. You’ve probably had this type of experience several times—a personal challenge occurs in your life: difficulty with a spouse, a challenging child, a friend who has fallen out of your favor. You do your best to resolve the issue alone, to no avail. No matter how many times you think it through you cannot make peace with the consequences of any solution you can come up with. This is indeed a pickle.

Maybe after several sleepless nights or a few anxious weeks you finally, out of desperation and an awareness of what’s at stake, put your pride aside and contact a trusted friend and make a date to sit down and talk this through with them. You are hoping you don’t look foolish or weak to your friend. Despite your embarrassment your friend seems perfectly at ease with your issue and after a brief description they begin to ask you questions about it. “Why is this so important to you?” or “What makes you think this is such a unique problem?” or “Do you know how you want this to turn out?”

Gradually, as you consider their questions, you begin to get some emotional distance from the problem and clarity begins to emerge from the haze of entanglement. You feel some of your confidence returning, especially when your friend shares an experience of something similar in their own life. You are comforted and validated simply by the fact that you seem to be being heard. No “answers” arise but a pathway forward can be mapped out. Most importantly, what you have established is that your friend can provide you a safe, non-judgmental space in which you can gain some objectivity about your issue. If they are a good friend, they offer to hold you to account for taking action because they know that even though you have some confidence now, the going will get tough.

“Why didn’t I do this sooner,” you may ask yourself. The answer is obvious. As people we are not wired to consider asking for support at the first sign of a challenge too big for our resources. We just aren’t. These instances are easy to recall because they are rare.

These days the challenges of business are often complex beyond description. Many involve emotional or psychological choices. Unlike the past with its ethos of rugged individualism there is a growing trend, at least in American business, for those in charge to willingly submit themselves to a process of peer group support.

Here’s what there is to know, especially if you are a business leader today: A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review noted that with great power comes great insecurity. Yikes! More than any other fear, modern CEOs are stricken by “impostor syndrome.” Those in charge fear that they don’t know what they’re doing and that the world will find out.

As a recent Fortune magazine article titled “The Rise of the CEO Support Group” points out, when business owners join these groups they may say to themselves that their primary interest is bottom line improvements. Eventually they will own up to the fact that the real benefit is the “safe space,” a place where they can relate to others and be related to with no hidden agenda. This is an experience worth paying for to the business leader surrounded by people depending on him or her for their economic future and that of course includes their own families.

The evidence of value provided by these groups is pretty compelling as you’ll find in similar articles such as “The Power of a Peer 
Group: How Come 
Something so Proven is not More Pervasive, and What are we Willing to do About it?” by Mike Richardson or “How Peer Advisory Groups Inspire Leaders to be Accountable,” by Beth Miller. The truth is no matter how successful your business, it is lonely at the top and nothing can substitute for hanging out with someone who knows from experience what you are faced with.

There is lots of support out there if you are interested, but you’ll have to do the looking.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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