CEO Groups: A Uniquely Valuable Resource
Some of the most impactful experiences I have had as CEO of two different companies occurred through my participation in confidential CEO peer groups or “forums”. These forums require a high level of commitment but offer invaluable support that is almost impossible to find anywhere else.
I joined my first CEO forum through the Boston Chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO, formerly YEO) In the 1990s while running a healthcare IT firm. I was a member for six years of a group comprised of CEOs from a wide range of industries. During that time, I also joined an industry-specific CEO group that had members from all over the country (no one from the same region to reduce competition issues.) We shared financials and other useful metrics; our similarities made these comparisons highly meaningful.
More recently, while running Siamab, I’ve been involved with a biotech CEO group made up of a mix of both venture- and angel-funded company CEOs, which makes for lively conversations. We’ve become quite close over the past several years as we have lived through each other’s challenges, “near death” experiences, deals closed, deals failed, and exits.
What is a CEO peer group?
CEO groups typically consist of eight to ten peer CEOs that meet regularly (monthly is typical) for two to four hours in a highly confidential setting. Members build trust with each other and, over time, learn a great deal about and from one another’s experiences. Some groups will use a professional moderator and others will “self-moderate”. Alongside confidentiality, there are other ground rules that usually include consistency of attendance (if you aren’t there, you can’t help your forum-mates), and no vendors or attempts to do business together .
Why join a CEO peer group?
Certain challenges faced by CEOs - problems with employees, cash flow, board members, personal stress – can be difficult to discuss with others not in the same position. A CEO’s employees, board members, and friends may not be appropriate for certain issues, and may not have the background, perspective, or independence necessary to be a rich and useful resource for guidance in these situations. Other CEOs, however, may have dealt with similar circumstances, or have a parallel experience that might be relevant.
How does a CEO group function?
Most groups meet regularly and expect strong attendance - groups like these don’t function well unless all members are committed. The first hour might be a scheduled update and review, where each member provides a five-minute overview of recent occurrences, including the best, worst, and highlights. Then, one or two members may present a particularly challenging problem that is relevant at the time for deeper discussion, Q&A and support.
Benefits of a CEO Group
Participating in a CEO group offers numerous benefits:
- Peer groups are a creative space to discuss difficult problems
- Members receive access to an informal but deeply skilled “board of advisors”
- Members broaden their networks, greatly amplifying connections.
Over time, members of these groups are able to tap into the experiences of each other and ultimately build a deeper exposure and knowledge base than can be developed on our own.
Moderator or self-moderated?
Many CEO group meetings are facilitated by professional moderators - these may be executive coaches, consultants or executive search professionals. The benefit of a professional moderator is the presence of an independent, objective expert in place to lead the group, manage logistics, facilitate discussion and set an appropriate environment. As members come and go, the moderator can recruit new members to keep the peer group vibrant. Moderated groups typically charge a modest annual fee of $1000-4000 to support these efforts and cover various costs of food, dinners, and other group expenses.
Some groups are self-moderated, electing not to bring in a professional moderator. In these cases there is a larger responsibility placed on the members to set rules and expectations for each other. Typically, the role of moderation is shared by having a member play this role for a year and then rotating. Self-moderated groups, when run well, can be equally powerful and successful.
Finding and Joining CEO Groups
There are several groups operating in the Boston area, but most keep a low profile. Industry associations like EO offer access to groups; for example, the NCI at NIH is working on a model for SBIR grant recipients. Some business schools, including HBS, also create alumni groups. Often the best way to find a group is to network with your peers and learn who is already engaged in a group.
Groups are typically careful in admitting new members – usually only after a long-time member departs, perhaps following a transaction/exit – and the existing group seeks to fill an open spot. Fit is critical, and an understanding of expectations. The usual process is to speak at length with a current member and then visit their group for a trial meeting before officially joining. With moderated groups, the moderators often facilitate this procedure as well.
We are starting up a CEO group at LabShares for our members and may have room for a couple of additional participants in our first group. If you are interested learning more, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.