Peers, Agility & Being Ever Prepared

Recently, I (Leo Bottary) sat down with organizational agility expert and Vistage Worldwide Chair,  Mike Richardson to talk about how peer advantage can give leaders and their companies an agility advantage.  In this excerpt from our conversation, I talk about how our peers can help us prepare for what’s next, as Mike affirms that preparedness is essential to organizational agility.   For more information, check out The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success and Wheelspin: The Agile Executive’s Manifesto.


Five Factors for Peer Advantage

Recently, I (Leo Bottary) sat down with Mike Richardson, who is an organizational agility expert and Chair for Vistage Worldwide.  We talked about how peer advantage provides organizational leaders with an agility advantage.  In this brief excerpt, I offer an overview of the five factors that help business leaders realize true peer advantage, as outlined in The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success.


UCONN Women's Basketball: Peerless

Last April, statistician and writer Nate Silver dubbed the UCONN Women’s Basketball 2015 squad as the most dominant college basketball team on earth.  Fast forward to April, 2016 and the dominance continues, with UCONN adding a fourth consecutive national championship, the team capped an undefeated season (its 6th all-time) with an average margin of victory of nearly 40 points per game.  UCONN won its semi-final game at the Final Four against Oregon State by 29 points and the final against Syracuse by 31 to win its 11th national championship since capturing its first title in 1995.  Wow!

Mia Hamm once said, “It’s harder to stay on top than it is to get there.”  So how does Connecticut do it and what can we learn from this incredible team?  In addition to the strong peer-to-peer culture I described in two earlier posts, UCONN optimizes in ways other teams don’t. In our book, The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success, we talk about four ways we engage our peers.  One of them we call optimize!

We optimize when we work together in teams to bring a high level of excellence to achieving a common goal. Leaders often form organizational “tiger teams” to tackle special projects. The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, conducts debriefs following every (what we see as perfect) flight to talk about how they can do better the next time. Top sports teams participate in practices that are often more rigorous than the games to ensure top performance when it truly counts.  Former UCONN and current WNBA star Sue Bird says that no women’s basketball team practices like they do at Connecticut.  And as an ESPN analyst, she’s been to a lot of women’s college basketball practices.

The work of optimizing tends to take place among a more homogeneous group of peers and be temporary in nature, determined by either the length of a specific project or the span of a season.  When it comes to business, we need to take time to practice, and we certainly should make the time to bring people together for debriefs.  Unfortunately, most companies don’t do much of either.  I believe we could have more companies that are consistently great, if people would just do what it takes to make that possible.

Longtime Runners’ World writer Joe Henderson once said (and I’m paraphrasing), it’s not always about doing things no one can do, it’s about doing things anyone can do but don’t.  While UCONN has three of the best players in the country graduating in the next month or so, it’s likely that next year’s team will continue to do what most teams don’t, and by believing in each other, they’ll be poised for another fantastic season.


Why Everyone Should Watch UCONN Women's Basketball – Especially CEOs

The image I selected for this post is obviously not related to basketball.  Instead, I chose a photo most of you will recognize from one of the most dramatic moments in all of sports –  Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont by 31 lengths – check out the video).   Jack Nicklaus, the dominant golfer of his era, recalled watching the race alone at home and being moved to tears by this overwhelming performance. (It still gives me chills). I’d like to talk about why everyone – especially CEOs – should watch the NCAA Final Four for Women’s basketball (Sunday, 4/3 and Tuesday night, 4/5).

Last week, Dan Shaughnessy released a tweet and subsequent Boston Globe article stating that UCONN Women’s Basketball is simply too dominant.  So much so that it’s hurting the women’s game.  Shaughnessy argues that it’s the competition that matters, and if the outcome is considered a certainty before the game starts, then why should anyone watch?  If he’s right and that were actually the case, then we would pay to watch anybody play a sport, right?  Try assembling a bunch of average basketball players in a major arena with the simple promise that it will be a close game.  How many tickets do you think you’d sell to that one?

It’s a flawed argument.  Sports fans pay their hard earned money to see the best!  They pay to watch outstanding individual players and teams in their respective sports perform at the very highest levels.  Close games can be exciting, don’t get me wrong, but there’s nothing more incredible than watching a team or an individual player firing on all cylinders.  Just think about the last time you witnessed a performance that challenged, and even expanded, your understanding of greatness.  I bet you can remember it like it was yesterday.

Dan Shaughnessy asserts that next week’s women’s Final Four isn’t worth watching because it’s a forgone conclusion that UCONN will win the national championship.  I would argue that you won’t want to miss it.  It will be a sight to see!

UCONN will prepare for the Final Four with same level of effort and discipline they’ve given for every game all season.  That’s who they are.  You’ll see a team that is talented and well coached, certainly.  Yet look more closely, and you’ll discover a powerful peer-to-peer culture that’s been evident since winning their first national championship in 1995.

Over time, that culture has only grown stronger, as every player who has put on the UCONN jersey over the years has left a piece of themselves behind.  Opposing teams are not simply suiting up against Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck, and company, they’re playing UCONN greats Rebecca Lobo, Shea Ralph, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and the countless former players who live in the hearts of this year’s team.  That’s why UCONN is so tough to beat!

In our book The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success, we highlight UCONN women’s basketball as a shining example of what’s possible when teams realize peer advantage to the degree it exists at Connecticut.  While we invite you to read about it because of what UCONN will teach you and your organization about pursuing and sustaining excellence,  be sure to watch the Final Four and see this team in action for yourselves.

Ron Turcotte looked over his left shoulder before crossing the finish line at the Belmont because, “My curiosity got the best of me,” he said.  This weekend, be curious and watch one of the greatest teams in the history of sports do what they love to do.  It will be well worth watching.







The Communication Triad

Revisiting a regrettable chapter from my junior high school days, albeit painful, provided us with a metaphor for why the receipt of any communication, as intended, is the responsibility of the sender as opposed to the receiver.  Now I understand why this may seem unreasonable to some people.  Maybe the person wasn’t listening or just ignored an important text or email. Things like this happen all the time, right?  So why is that the sender’s fault?  The thing is, it’s not about assigning blame, it’s about accepting  responsibility.  It comes down to verifying and not assuming.  It’s how great leaders assure that they’re not just writing or talking – they’re actually communicating.

That said, most of us can use help in that area.  So working in teams of three versus teams of two (triads instead of dyads) can provide added assurance that everyone is on the same page.  In the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, they note the power of triads in communication.  For example, if one person is talking to another, and it becomes apparent that the two people are not on the same page, the third member of the group can be extremely effective at clearing up misunderstandings.   It can work the same way in a larger group, where you have a leader, a member, and the group itself serving as the third leg of the stool.  It’s how the highest performing CEO peer advisory groups engage each other during each and every meeting.

In our book, The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success (which will be officially released on 3/22), we offer this concept as just one small example of what it can mean when we accept responsibility for our success, surround ourselves with the right people, and reap the benefits of what we call peer advantage.  Communicating with one another more effectively is just the tip of the iceberg.   I invite you to pick up three copies – one for you and two more for the other members of your triad!

Peer Advantage & Communication

To realize peer advantage – the outcome of being more selective, strategic, and structured about how you engage your peers – effective communication is essential.  One ground rule that I learned in a most unfortunate way, back in the ninth grade, is that when you send someone a message (verbally or in writing), you are also responsible for the receipt of the message by your audience as intended. I didn’t learn this important lesson in a classroom or working for the school newspaper.  I learned it during a track meet, and as you’ll discover soon enough, you’ll see why I’ve never forgotten it.

To make a long story short, I was on the track team for that one year.  I typically ran the mile, but at the last meet of the season, I was also asked to fill-in as the third leg on our undefeated one-mile relay team.  No problem I thought.  I had practiced this many times and was looking forward to contributing however I could.  I ran the third leg, starting slightly back in second place. By the time I was ready to pass the baton, I had taken the lead. Our anchor leg was the fastest kid in the city. No way we could lose. As I was passing the baton, I felt a brief moment of excitement, until of course the baton hit the ground. So much for our undefeated season.  

I was devastated, and I don’t think the members of that relay team have spoken to me since.  After the race, I was searching for answers as to how this may have happened.  Turns out, the coach wasn’t bashful about offering me some clarity, stating in no uncertain terms that it was my fault.  “You should never let go of the baton until you’re certain the receiver has grasped it,” he said.

It’s hard to miss the relevance to communication.  Like it or not, the responsibility lies with those delivering the message, not those receiving it. You can’t just say, “it was in the e-mail” or “sure, it’s right there in paragraph 8.”  If you want to experience true peer advantage, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it.  You should never let go of the baton until you know that the recipients have received the message. It’s only at that point you can relax and let them run with it.

Next week, I’ll cover how the concept of triads in peer advisory groups offers true peer advantage when it comes to effective communication.  Among other things, employing triads will provide extra insurance that will help you avoid what happened to me.

MASCL Graduation Keynote

On March 6, 2016, I was honored to address the graduates of Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership (MASCL) program.  As members of Learning Team (LT) 37, they went through the entire program together. I am a graduate of the program and have been part of its faculty for more than seven years!

Using principles covered in The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success, I presented a challenge to the group. I left out the formal introduction, but the remaining text reflects the keynote as delivered:  

            As you know all too well, who you surround yourself with matters. In fact, it really matters. Whether you want to run a marathon, build a new company, or complete your master’s degree, if you surround yourself with really good people who share your commitment and dedication to the goal at hand, you can accomplish anything! Today is a celebration of graduation, yet it’s also a time for us to consider what’s possible for your future.

So to that end, let me offer an assertion and propose a challenge. My assertion is that the most valuable learning you had in this program didn’t come from one of your instructor’s posts or lectures; it didn’t come from the writings of Kouzes & Posner or Peter Senge; in fact, it didn’t come from WHAT you learned at all – it came from HOW you learned – that’s the most enduring lesson.

You learned how to learn together. This is the gift that keeps on giving. Think about it, over time, facts can become irrelevant, theories outdated. Since we live in a world where we contemplate a future we can barely imagine, having the ability to work and learn with others is where the real enduring value lies. Does that sound right to you? Good because otherwise the next part would have been irrelevant. 😉

As for the challenge, I ask that you challenge yourselves to create “learning teams” (if you will) in your lives and in your organizations and employ the five factors that made your own learning team so successful.

The first of those factors is bring great people together and invite them to share an experience where if they listen more than they talk, learn rather than judge, and be truly selfless in their exchanges with others, then they will set the stage for achieving extraordinary results.

Second, create a safe environment for your team – a place where they can fearlessly share their ideas, experiences, and opinions. My guess is that in your course on Multiculturalism and Diversity, you had conversations about race, gender, and age, that I would suggest you never had with anyone before. (It was certainly the case in my learning team, and because we trusted one another enough to have those conversations, we were all that much richer for it.)

Third, bring your best self as a servant leader to every interaction with others. I don’t mind saying that we have a faculty here that really understands how to lead learning teams. Our job isn’t simply to lecture or point students to books and journal articles, it’s to be that servant leader who brings our students together, inspires them to learn from each other, and who creates learning team leaders in their own right. If we don’t do that, we haven’t done our job. Let me suggest that if you don’t bring your special brand of servant leadership to the lives of others, you won’t be doing yours either.

Fourth, while we live in a world where debate (and unfortunately even personal insults) appears to rule the day, you can challenge yourself to raise the level of conversation with everyone you meet. You’ve spent the last 18 months engaging in true dialogue and participating in what we call skilled discussion. It’s not about winning, it’s about what the late Dr. Stephen Covey advised: “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” That’s how people learn and grow, and you can be an agent for that for others.

Finally, create your own culture of accountability – it’s not about what you demand of your team, it’s about what they grow to expect from each other. There’s not one of you who didn’t care about your fellow LT members’ success as much as your own, and because of that, you were there for each other and helped each other stay on track no matter how life may have challenged you along the way.

You’re born leaders. Born communicators. It’s why you were attracted to this demanding program. Keep being students of both and bring what you’ve discovered about learning how to learn together into every aspect of your life. If you do that, there isn’t one of you who won’t change the world in your own unique way.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a brief story. It came from one of the members of LT 33, Sister Mary Alice Otoo. On a Friday evening after dinner, LT members were expressing what the program meant to them. When it was Sister Mary Alice’s turn, she said (in that gentle voice of hers), “What makes MASCL special is, you don’t just go through the program. If you allow it to happen, the program goes through you.” Wow, we thought! Sister Mary Alice’s words were more than just a clever turn of phrase; she captured the essence of the MASCL experience – that if we bring really great people together, ask them to trust each one another, encourage them to see others for what makes them special, and believe in something larger than themselves, it will be a truly transformative experience. It’s a gift I know all of us who were there that night will cherish forever, and before you left this campus and this program, I wanted to be sure I shared that gift with you.

With that, enough talk about the future. Enjoy this special day. Bask in the glow of your accomplishment.  After 18 months and about 1,500 hours of hard work, you, your family, and your friends have earned it.

So on behalf of all of us at Seton Hall University, I invite you to stick together, continue to surround yourself with great people, and go through life by allowing the most precious gifts to go through you. To LT 37, Congratulations!

A Power of Peers Q&A

With the release of The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Success & Growth, by Leon Shapiro and Leo Bottary set to take place in three weeks (March 22nd), I thought I’d share this authors’ Q&A!  If you have additional questions, please let me know!

Q: What prompted you to write this book?

To introduce more leaders to the power of peers. While thousands of CEOs will tell you that being part of a CEO peer advisory group has transformed their lives and their companies, too few of them are ever exposed to the experience. They read books, attend executive leadership programs, go to conferences, hire coaches, etc. – which we applaud – but we also believe that CEOs who don’t harness the power of their peers and realize what we call “peer advantage,” are really missing out. By giving language to this powerful resource, we hope more CEOs and business owners will discover how much they (and their organizations) will benefit from joining a group.    

Q: How would you define “peer advantage”? How is it an effective method for CEOs and other leaders who struggle with isolation?

Without giving it a second thought or that much effort, we’ve experienced the power of peer influence our whole lives.  Imagine if we gave it a second thought.  If we are more selective, strategic, and structured about how we engage our peers, we can transform garden-variety peer influence into what we describe as “peer advantage.” It’s that simple. For CEOs and business owners, who all too often feel isolated, or “lonely at the top,” they will help each other in ways they won’t find anywhere else. 

Q: Besides isolation, what are some other key reasons a CEO might consider joining a peer group?

There are many, but let’s focus on two:

  1. An empathetic, impartial sounding board. CEOs are surrounded by advisors, employees, board members, etc. who, when it comes to giving advice, either have a stake in the outcome or don’t really understand what it’s like to sit in the CEO’s chair. This is where a CEO peer advisory group comes in. CEOs rely on their peers, who empathize with the CEO role and have no personal stake in the outcome, to pressure test decisions they are about to make. It’s a powerful resource that gives CEOs not only the insights to make the best decisions, but also the increased confidence to act on them.
  2. Diversity of perspective. By engaging with CEOs from a broad range of industries outside of their own, they will discover best practices that can be applied to their business that they would not likely discover by working with leaders within their industry sector. This opens up a new of world possibilities for most CEOs.

Q: In Chapter 1, you explain that the people with whom we surround ourselves matters a great deal. What are some basic guidelines CEOs should follow when selecting a peer group to join?

CEO Peer Advisory Groups are what Etienne Wenger-Trayner calls “Communities of Practice.” The structural characteristics of a community of practice include having a domain that involves a common knowledge base around a shared purpose, a community willing to collaborate, and a practice with a solid set of approaches, language, and tools. So if you’re a CEO, join a group that consists of CEOs who share goals that align with your own, who are committed to working together, and who enjoy solid practices and a culture of accountability that raises everybody’s game.

Q: You discuss vulnerability in Chapter 5. Why is it a necessary element for a successful peer group experience?

 Your peers can’t give you solid advice if you’re unwilling or afraid to share everything about the challenges you’re facing. That includes being open about what you think and how you feel, no matter how difficult that may be to share. The outcome will only be as good as the input. Being among a group of people whom you trust to share in a setting that is safe, confidential and free of judgment, not only helps in a given situation, but also serves to build an enduring trust among group members.

Q: In addition to individual growth, you write that peer advantage can benefit and accelerate business growth as well. What’s one example of this?

 Business growth and individual growth are two sides of the same coin. Jay Steinfeld grew as a person and as a leader before his “mom & pop” blinds business became a $100+ million dollar company that was recently acquired by The Home Depot. It’s one of the most compelling stories in the book.

The Wisdom of Walk-Ons & Pitch Ninja

One of the great things about writing a book is that it opens doors to meeting interesting people who are willing to share their knowledge and their books with you.  This exchange fosters the kind of peer-to-peer learning that serves as the foundation for The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Success & Growth.  Who we surround ourselves with matters – even if it’s just for a few days!

This past week, I was honored to speak to groups of students at Northwestern (Kellogg) and University of Chicago (Booth) business schools.  In addition to everything I learned from the great questions and insights that came from some of the world’s finest business school students, professors Paul L. Corona (The Wisdom of Walk-Ons) and Mike Moyer (Pitch Ninja) generously shared their books with me.

Paul Corona offers powerful lessons for business and life in his book, The Wisdom of Walk-Ons!  Let’s face it, most of us are walk-ons, not scholarship athletes.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re not capable of achieving success beyond measure in our respective fields – if we put our minds to it.  Three well-told, true stories reveal seven strategies we can all apply to our own lives!  Two of the strategies near and dear to my heart are: appreciate your supporters and help others succeed. (By the way, if you ARE a scholarship athlete, there’s something for you here as well).  Enjoy the Foreword by legendary Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden and read a book you won’t be able to put down.

As for Mike Moyer’s, Pitch Ninja, I was privileged not only to read the book, but also I got to see Mike deliver a live presentation about the book, using the incredibly effective pitching and presentation concepts he espouses.  Trust me, when I say they really work.  I’ve witnessed and participated in numerous presentation training programs in my career, and I’ve never come across anything quite like Mike Moyer’s program.  I’m in the process of creating a PowerPoint presentation about the power of peers specific to business leaders, and I can’t wait to implement everything from the Zone Program and my new special Ninja moves, to providing real flow, and of course, using “Magic Hands!”  (Now you have to read the book, right?)  Great stuff!

It’s one thing to promote really good content, yet it’s especially rewarding to support good people.  Paul was kind enough to take me to lunch, and Mike drove me from the University of Chicago campus back to my downtown hotel at the end of the day – proactive acts of kindness that made my week.   You can support them too by buying both books.  You’ll be glad you did!

Make March the New January!

You began the new year full of resolve to either lose weight, straighten out your finances, or get more organized – you may have even committed to doing all three.  Yet here you are, just over six weeks later, and it’s likely that 80% you realized what U.S. New & World Report said would happen.  That, at the most, you’d only last about six weeks before abandoning whatever promise you made to yourself on January 1.  If you’re among the 20% who are sticking with your plan, that’s fantastic!  Stay with it!

For the rest of you, don’t despair.  March 1 is right around the corner.  Use this date to hit the reset button.  Why wait until next January to tackle what could likely be an even greater challenge next year?  Approach your goal(s) with the same level of enthusiasm you did when the ball dropped on New Year’s eve.  (If you think about it, dropping the ball is not exactly the metaphor you need to inspire sticking with your New Year’s resolutions, but I digress).   But this time, instead of keeping your resolution a secret or telling that friend or two, who you know full well will be no help whatsoever when it comes to assuring your success, enlist the support of people who share your passion and commitment to whatever goal you’ve identified.

Back in January, I asked the question Who Will Your Peers Be in 2016?   It’s time to ask this question again because if you surround yourself with the right people, you’ll actually give yourself a fighting chance at sticking with your plan.  While this is a central premise of our book, The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success, you know deep down from personal experience that this is true.  John C. Norcross, Ph.D., ABPP,  author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions has studied how people can make permanent and transformative changes in their lives.  “Going public increases accountability and allows for more support,” he says.

If you’re part of a group who is all after the same thing, you’ll be surrounded by cheerleaders, people who will provide their advice or technical expertise, and those who will keep you on track, while you do the same for them.  On February 29th, you won’t find any balls dropping, at least anywhere I know of, so if you start anew with a fresh approach on March 1, I seriously doubt that your peers will allow YOU to drop the ball a second time!

If you plan to hit the reset button, take some time between now and March 1 to identify the people who will help you achieve your goals and enlist their support.  You’ll be doing them a service as well.  Keep us all posted on your progress!  You can do this!