Peer Advantage and the Mountain

Last week, I talked about why declaring victory matters.  As you may remember, it involved using the metaphor of running a marathon to illustrate how we can push through adversity by reframing our circumstances.  Sometimes, especially when we’re part of a team, whether in business or in life, our desired goal can feel more like scaling a mountain than running a race because every day feels like an uphill climb.  Surround yourself with people who can look at this climb in the right way and who are dedicated to your success, and you’ll make it to the summit every time.

Let me share a brief story.  Several years ago, a group of us set out to climb Mt. Teocalli (13,208 ft.) in Crested Butte, Colorado.   We met at the trailhead at 6:00 am to begin what would be about a three and a half hour climb. (The reason for the early departure involved adhering to a rule of thumb that you want to be off the mountain by noon in the event of a summer afternoon thunderstorm. The last place you want to be during such a weather event is on a big rock!)

As we began the climb, our group was very enthusiastic. After about 75 minutes, people started joking (or not) saying, “the view looks pretty good from here” and “should we be concerned about those clouds coming in?”  Despite the light mood, you could see the exhaustion starting to appear on everyone’s faces.  Then a few people began to ask serious questions about whether getting to the summit was realistic.  The climb was a great deal more difficult than everyone had originally imagined.  One member of the group suggested we give it another 20 minutes and see how everyone feels. (In fairness, the climb was not easy). Twenty minutes later, the summit looked no closer and the terrain was only getting steeper.

Getting to the top was looking like a losing battle.  Then someone suggested that rather than stare at the summit, we simply take note of where we are, climb for 15 more minutes, and reassess.  The group reluctantly agreed.  After 15 minutes, the summit didn’t look any more attainable, but when we looked behind us to find the spot we just came from, we were astonished at our progress.  So much so that it not only sparked a surge in our mental and physical energy, but also (and best of all) put a stop to the complaining.

To this day, I can’t recall a more spectacular view  – largely because of the way we persevered as a group.  The best part, is that to a person, we continue to draw upon this experience in our daily lives, regardless of the challenge.  And we share our perspective with others, so they can climb their own mountain – whatever that may be.   This is what peer advantage is all about.  If you have a story you’d like to share about how your peers helped you meet a difficult challenge and/or achieve a lofty goal, we’d love to hear it!


Why Declaring Victory Matters

The wonderful thing about surrounding yourself with really great people is that they will teach you techniques for meeting tough challenges in life and in business that can be transformational. It’s what peer advantage is all about. Here’s an example of a small change in mindset that can deliver big results whether you’re running a marathon or embarking on a major strategic initiative at your company.

I was in my late 30s when I ran my first marathon. At the end of that race, I swore I’d never do it again – only to run 12 more of them over the next five years. Sometimes on long run days or even during a few races, if I was either not feeling 100% physically or just mentally beaten down by the distance, I would stop and walk for awhile, run until I couldn’t run anymore, and walk again. I’d repeat the process until I reached the end of my training run or, in the case of a race, the finish line. This is how most people who are determined to finish do so when such a situation arises – when you’re just having one of those days. While I may have finished, it was not only a debilitating experience during the run, but it didn’t help my confidence or do much to build my mental toughness for next time.

A fellow runner told me that this can happen to anyone, but that I was thinking about it all wrong. I was told that if you have to stop and walk, that’s fine, but when you start running again, don’t run until can’t go another step. When you do that, you’re engaging in a mental exercise of repeated failures.   Instead, when you feel good enough to start running again, look ahead of you and spot a tree or a stop sign. Set that as your goal. Run to it and declare victory. Start walking again and when you’re ready, identify another marker. Run to that and call it a win. He told me that the difference between declaring victory and succumbing to repeated defeats will help me finish more quickly and with a healthier attitude. It will put me in control of the run instead of the run being in control of me. And as a result, will actually bolster my confidence for the future. Of course, he was right. It works brilliantly.

Now think about this from a business perspective. You set a lofty goal, have a solid plan to achieve that goal, and then set forth on your journey with all the energy in the world. As you run into difficulties along the way, your enthusiasm gives way to your current circumstances and the reality of the long slog ahead.  You start to believe that the situation is controlling you versus the other way around. When this happens, don’t be afraid to walk for a bit, set a short-term goal, achieve that goal, declare victory, and set a new short-term goal. John Kotter has written extensively about the importance of recognizing small wins. The running advice I received from my peer is simply a metaphor for why it’s so effective regardless of the situation.

Like completing a marathon, you can achieve your goals in business by employing the same approach. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and declare victory as often as possible.

Are You A Learner Or A Judger?

Would you consider yourself a learner or a judger? Let’s face it, most of us are a combination of both. When someone communicates an idea or best practice, we may listen to what they’re saying, but it’s how we listen that really matters.

Do you tend to listen with an open mind and follow-up with questions to gain a complete understanding of what’s being said? Or do you immediately default to evaluation or judging mode, where as the words are being spoken, you’re shooting holes at them. You may think to yourself: “That will never work in my business” or worse yet, you have an ad hominem reaction where you focus your negativity on the person versus that actual content.   You dismiss the idea or proposal because it doesn’t resonate with your worldview or simply as a byproduct of where it came from.

In my work with Leon Shapiro in writing The Power of Peers, I talked with Fredricka Brecht who leads several CEO Peer Advisory Groups in Texas. Here’s an excerpt from my interview with her about learners and judgers:

Fredricka: One of the things that I observe, is people come into these groups with a leaning on either being a person who tends to judge, versus a person who tends to learn. I’ve got a room full of judgers and learners. Part of what I’m coaxing the judgers to do, is to become a learners.   Because if they go through life and they run their companies from a learner standpoint, they’re a better leader of their people. They’re a better coach of their executives, and they are more capable of operating in a safe environment. People who come from a position of judgment have a hard time creating safety for others. Does that make sense?

Leo:     It does, and what I would imagine too, is for the judger, they’re far less likely to want to be vulnerable because they think others are mirroring their behavior, right? They feel like they’re being judged, just like they’re judging others. Or someone who is a learner, feels safe to talk about things, knowing they’re not going to be right all the time, knowing they can make mistakes, and giving others the freedom to do so as well.

As I reflect on that simple exchange, I think about how much I learned by listening to Fredricka that day. While her many insights were invaluable to the book, they also made me step back and consider my own learning versus judging tendencies. I may always have some tendency to judge, but if there’s one thing I’d like to improve upon next year is to be in learner mode far more often.

Think about giving it a try yourself. You might learn something. Happy New Year!

Who Will Your Peers Be In 2016?

Considering it’s the holidays, I’ll keep it short and sweet! This is the time of year when many of us think about New Year’s resolutions and goals for the upcoming twelve months.   This year, I invite you to try something different. For each goal you identify, make a list of the peers who will help you achieve that goal – whether it’s a personal or professional pursuit.

Who you surround yourself with matters, and your peers can play powerful roles depending on what you require.  For example, you may need encouragers – people who will be there to cheer you on when sticking with your goal becomes most challenging. You might find advisors to be effective – peers who have the specific knowledge and/or technical expertise to help you successfully navigate any challenge that may come your way. Or, if you’re the type of person who needs help maintaining the discipline that’s often so necessary to being successful, think about peers as accountability partners. These are people with whom you share the same goal, who can empathize with your highs and lows, yet will relentlessly keep you on course – and vice versa.

Think about the people who are at your side today. Do they lift you up, hold you at bay, or worse yet, drag you down? The more people you surround yourself with who will lift you up, offer you positive guidance, and join you on your journey, the more likely you are to achieve your 2016 goals.  Years ago, Runners’ World writer Joe Henderson said that success isn’t always about doing something extraordinary, it’s usually about doing what anyone can do, but they just don’t. Food for thought as you set your goals and identify the people who will help you realize them.

Happy New Year! May your peers be with you!

What Do You Believe?

The holiday season is a time we often take stock of our experiences over the past year – wins, losses, successes, failures, joys and sorrows. As I reflect on 2015, I can honestly say that I’ve never been more convinced of the power of belief – not religious belief per se – the power of believing in one another and its ability to transform the way we live our lives. During our research for the book The Power of Peers, Leon Shapiro and I found this to be the case, time and time again, in every country where we explored the impact peers have on one another.

Robert Fritz, who is known for the development of structural dynamics and his study of the way relationships impact behavior, says that most of us hold two contrary beliefs that limit our ability to create what we really want in business and in life—powerlessness and unworthiness. Fritz said he’s only met a handful of individuals who don’t have one or the other, and it’s these beliefs that hold us back, regardless of the position we may hold in an organization, and that includes being the CEO.  While that’s a sobering thought, Stanford professor emeritus Albert Bandura may have the antidote here. He credits our peers with our level of self-confidence and self-efficacy.  According to Bandura, we build our confidence largely through social persuasion (when we are convinced by others to believe in ourselves) and social modeling (when we observe others succeeding, thus building confidence that we can also be successful). In short, to realize our full potential as individuals, we need each other.

By surrounding ourselves with the right people, people who model the behaviors to which we aspire and, who are generous enough to share their confidence and belief in us and what we want out of life, feelings of powerlessness and/or unworthiness melt away. I’ve seen it firsthand in my Vistage Inside Group (a group of VPs who meet monthly for a half-day peer advisory group session), and as a graduate student at Northeastern University, where the doctoral faculty inspire a culture of students believing in and supporting one another that’s as effective as I’ve ever seen.

While we define peer advantage as peer influence of a higher order, or expressed another way, as what’s possible when we are more selective, more strategic and more structured about how we engage our peers, peer advantage is fundamentally grounded in supporting and encouraging others.  In 2016, be sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you, and in turn, make every effort to give them the same gift.  During this time of year, while you’ll often hear that it’s better to give than to receive, it may be more accurate to suggest that to receive, you have to give first.

A Case For Peer Advantage

Peer influence is something we’ve experienced for our entire lives, often without a great deal of thought or effort. In the post Peer Advantage Speaks Our Language, I described peer advantage as what can be realized when we engage our peers in a manner that’s more selective, more strategic, and more structured.   That if you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organization to meet the challenges of the future, surround yourself with a group of peers you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens!

This may be true, yet it doesn’t happen automatically. Unless your peer group is able to foster the kind of valuable interaction that can really help you address tough challenges or identify new opportunities, you’re not likely to experience much advantage at all.   One incredibly effective way of inspiring this level of dialogue is through what Etienne & Beverly Wenger-Trayner and others call “Case Clinics.”

You’re probably familiar with the Casebook Method that’s used in law school. Developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell, dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895, the casebook method is essentially a retrospective analysis of cases that help students grasp principles of the law. By 1920, the case method (which grew out of the casebook method) made its way to Harvard Business School (HBS), but with a very different focus and purpose.

The Case Method used in business schools is prospective in nature. The idea is to take a business case from the past and to place yourself in the position of the protagonist to determine what you may have done under the same circumstances and with limited available information. Students work together in groups to analyze the cases and reach their own conclusions. HBS professor David Garvin once said that the case method helps students “learn how to take a stand.” Today, business schools including HBS, Michigan (Ross), and University of Virginia (Darden), among others, publish case studies used at MBA programs all over the world.

Case Clinics are an important evolution because they not only help build intellectual muscles around judgment, they offer real-world, personal benefits.   As opposed to studying cases from the past, case clinics involve peers working together on their own business challenges in real time, helping those who bring these challenges to the group to arrive at their own solutions. No matter what the issue (whether it directly involves you or not), everyone learns from the experience of participating in the case clinic, and later, learns from what happened after the solution was implemented.   Vistage Chair Chris Noonan once told me that case clinics are valuable in two important ways:  They help you identify a path forward, and they empower you with the courage to act.

The casebook method illustrates why, the case method explores what if, and case clinics dive into what is and what could be. By working with peers who share your commitment to excellence, yet who offer different perspectives, case clinics will help you explore new answers and pressure test innovative solutions in a highly effective manner – hence the case for peer advantage.

Peer Advantage Speaks Our Language

Idioms often serve as metaphors for what people intuitively understand about their socially constructed reality.  And in the English language, when it comes to illustrating the power of peers in our lives, there is no shortage of such expressions: Birds of a feather flock together.  We’re all in the same boat.  We’re known by the company we keep. Great minds think alike. These are among the most common.   More than simple figures of speech, they underscore the fact that the people with whom we surround ourselves matter a great deal. Our friends and colleagues encourage us, compete with us, and share common aspirations.  We are capable of lifting each other up, holding one another at bay, or dragging each other down.  One can easily make the argument that it’s our peers (not our leaders) who have the greatest influence on our success and happiness.

Of course our parents always understood this.  It’s why they were so inquisitive about our friends and classmates.  They knew that even in the ideal parent-child relationship, peers wielded enormous power.  As a teenager, I recall my mother responding to what she observed about my changed behavior (which she attributed to my new best friend) by asking, “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”  I’m guessing you may have heard that (or some version of it) when you were growing up as well.  And while you may not have jumped off a bridge, it’s likely you were led astray a time or two.  Or on the positive side, you studied more and worked harder because of a friend or colleague who led by example.

As we’ve gotten older, none of that has changed.  In fact, because of the digital platforms that connect us, peer influence is more pervasive than ever.   Today, we’re far less inclined to trust institutional experts (if you don’t believe me, check out the results of the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer). Instead, we trust the opinions and experiences of peers we’ve never met (fellow readers, students, consumers, etc.).  We trust the prevailing sentiment of these online peers, with whom we have something temporarily in common, with everything from book recommendations and product reviews to which college we should attend and what car we should buy.

Without giving it a second thought or that much effort, we experience the power of peer influence every day. Imagine if we gave it a second thought. Consider what could happen if we were more purposeful about how we harnessed that power. By being more selective, strategic, and structured about how we connect with our peers, we would turn garden-variety peer influence into peer advantage.  The truth is, we can help each other in ways we can’t find anywhere else.

If you want to grow as an individual, become a better leader, and prepare your organization to meet the challenges of the future, engage a group of peers who you respect and who are committed to the same goals, and watch what happens! For those of you who have a story about the difference a peer (or group of peers) made in your life, please share it in a comment and share this post with a peer. Your story, and those like it, may be a dime a dozen, but it’s value to you is likely to be priceless. Tell us about the company you keep and why they matter so much.

Disrupting Disruptive Innovation

I just finished reading a wonderful feature article in HBR’s December 2015 issue titled, What Is Disruptive Innovation? It appears that since Clayton Christensen introduced the theory about twenty years ago, its meaning has taken on a life of its own. This has apparently resulted in frequent misapplication and compromised utility. Michael Raynor and Rory McDonald joined Professor Christensen in answering critics and crafting an article that resets the term and reminds readers of its original definition. While I appreciate the intent of the piece and the value of the debate, I can’t help but question whether the natural evolution of any term, over time, weakens its value (as asserted in the piece) or gives it greater dimension. Why is disrupting disruptive innovation so bad?

When we interviewed Etienne Wenger-Trayner earlier this year for our upcoming book, The Power of Peers, he told us that when he and anthropologist Jean Lave introduced communities of practice in 1991, they gave language to something that was previously difficult to talk about. In the last 25 years or so, the term has evolved because Wenger-Trayner has continued to fine-tune it and because other researchers have contributed their own perspectives.

By describing what CEOs experience when they engage their peers more selectively, more strategically, and in a more disciplined and structured manner, we stood on the shoulders of Wenger-Trayner, Lave, and countless other contributors to expand the vocabulary further by coining the term peer advantage. This was our attempt to give language to what business leaders have been experiencing for decades.

To the writers of What is Disruptive Innovation?, you can split hairs about whether the advent of Uber is disruptive innovation or not based on the segment of the market to which it was introduced or you might consider asking any cab driver instead. In my view, it’s the cab driver who gets to make the call here, not the scholars. Disruptive Innovation is not a static concept, any more than communities of practice or peer advantage. Language is a living, breathing organism that adapts and grows to meet the needs of an ever-evolving society.

Twenty years from now, it’s my hope is that scholars and CEOs alike will build on disruptive innovation, communities of practice, and peer advantage. By contributing their own research and experiences, they will be the ones who will contemporize the concepts and assure their relevance for decades to come.  I’d rather these concepts be part of the language twenty years from now than not.

Advantage: Peers

In our upcoming book, The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth, & Success, among many examples, we showcase peer advantage as it exists at the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Team – a team that renowned statistician Nate Sliver called “the most dominant basketball team on earth.”

Last Monday night, top-ranked Connecticut showcased its dominance once again on the road in the team’s season opener, defeating #7 Ohio State University (OSU) 100-56. Keep in mind that just a few nights earlier, OSU played #2 ranked South Carolina and with less than 3 minutes to play, the game was tied 78-78 before the Gamecocks eventually pulled away, winning 88-80. Whether this indicates that South Carolina may have some work to do before the team plays UConn in February is hard to say, but it certainly raises the question.

Commenting on the game and the margin of victory, head coach Geno Auriemma told ESPN’s Graham Hays: “…we’re not one of these teams that we get up a little bit and we relax. I don’t have those kinds of players. We don’t practice like that, and I don’t coach like that.”  While other basketball programs have great coaches and top talent also, Connecticut continues to separate itself from the field by chasing perfection in pursuit of excellence and having players who sacrifice individual goals for the good of the team.  Coach Auriemma may set the tone, but the culture of accountability and drive to win national championships among the players is what makes Connecticut a cut about the rest. Just imagine the implications of such a culture for any organization, no matter what its goals.

Our publisher, Bibliomotion, has scheduled the release of the book on March 22, 2016. Coincidentally, The Power of Peers will be available just as the women’s division 1 basketball tournament is about to get underway.  In the meantime, if you’ve never seen UConn play and you want to see something really special, check out UConn’s schedule, tune in, and watch a few games. I started 20 years ago, and I’ve been watching and marveling ever since.

*Update: 2/15/2016: UConn beat South Carolina handily in front of a sellout crowd on the Gamecocks’ home court.

Peer Advantage – A Matter of Perspective

I’ve come across a number of blog posts over the past several months that describe joining a peer advisory group for business leaders as “not inexpensive” or “not cheap.”  As if to imply that cost is an obstacle to joining.  I also heard a story recently about a CEO who was being recognized for ten years of membership in his CEO peer advisory group.  The member (we’ll call him John) accepted his ten year plaque and joked that it cost him well over a hundred thousand dollars in dues.  John quickly acknowledged, however, that it was an investment that earned him millions in increased sales and profits, and that he’s become a better CEO and today enjoys a healthier work-life balance.  It’s why John is embarking on his second decade of membership.

If you’ve ever climbed to the top of a step ladder and looked down, you probably noticed that the ground appeared to be a lot farther away than you expected and that the view is quite different at the top.   Similarly, if you’ve never been part of a CEO peer advisory group, it’s hard to imagine the quality of the experience and what it could mean for you unless you take a look for yourself.   Peer influence is something we intuitively understand; peer advantage (the result of being more selective, strategic and structured in how we engage our peers) is almost unfathomable unless you change your perspective.

It makes perfect sense that non-members tend to see joining a group as an added cost – one that involves money and time – without knowing if they’ll be any return on their investment.    Yet from the perspective of peer advisory group members who have made the investments and have the luxury of reflecting (even basking) on the exponential return(s), the view is far different.  I’ve heard CEOs credit their group for everything from helping them exponentially grow their companies and guiding them in making key strategic decisions to saving their marriages and putting balance back in their lives.

Doris Kearns Goodwin tells a story of attending a seminar led by famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.  According to Goodwin, Erikson said, “The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play.  And that to pursue one realm to the disregard of the others is to open oneself to ultimate sadness in older age. Whereas to pursue all three with equal dedication is to make possible a life full not only with achievement, but with serenity.”

I can’t think of a more eloquent description of what so many CEOs and business leaders have expressed about what experiencing peer advantage has meant to them.   As the non-member evaluates joining a group from a place of it being “not inexpensive” or “not cheap,” the peer advisory group member holds a priceless gem that continues to increase in value.   It’s all a matter of perspective.