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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!

 

The Value of an Outside Perspective

In The Power of Peers: How the Company You Keep Drives Leadership, Growth & Success, we talk a great deal about the importance of seeking outside perspectives – about the unbelievable value that can come from someone giving us a fresh take on what appears to be an unsolvable problem.  This video has been around since 2010, but it offers such a clear illustration of getting outside your small circle and venturing beyond it, I just had to share.  Listen to the first few minutes of this clip, as William Ury, coauthor of Getting to Yes, masterfully shares the story of 17 camels.  If you have time, I encourage you to watch this TED Talk in its entirety to learn more about the value of storytelling!  Enjoy and tell me what you think!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hc6yi_FtoNo&w=622&h=350]

The "Perfect" Smart Guide Metaphor

In our book, The Power of Peers: How The Company You Keep Drives, Leadership, Growth & Success, we talk about the value of the “smart guide” who essentially serves as the servant leader of a CEO Peer advisory group.  So I got to thinking today about Sam Arthur.  Who is Sam Arthur you ask? He’s my favorite character from Robert H. Thompson’s book, The Offsite – A Leadership Challenge Fable. I’d like to tell you about Sam, but my challenge is to do so without giving away too much about the book or revealing what we discover about Sam as the story progresses. Suffice it to say that Sam is the gardener, or as he would call himself, “the groundskeeper” at Tucson, Arizona’s La Mariposa Resort & Spa – the location of the offsite meeting for two high-powered teams from competing pharmaceutical companies.

So why is the gardener so significant?  Consider for a moment that the author could have given Sam any job at the hotel – manager, bellman, concierge, etc. Sam’s the gardener because Thompson offers us the perfect metaphor for servant leadership. Sam sees to it that the soil is healthy. He makes sure the plants get enough water and sun, and that their environment is free from weeds and pests.  The plants are given everything they need to succeed on their own. Sam knows that if he creates the right conditions for growth, his gardens will flourish.

One would hardly imagine Sam yelling at the flowers to grow faster or fuller.  Or firing a plant who is not thriving by yanking it out of the ground only to replace it with a new, fresh variety (without first knowing for certain whether the plant was struggling because of something Sam did).  While that kind of behavior is clearly not in Sam’s nature, he also understands that it doesn’t work.  Sam’s approach to nurturing his garden is what great leaders do to build successful enterprises and how seasoned smart guides lead high-performing peer advisory groups.  They create conditions for people to flourish!

The beauty of the story is that Sam is not simply defined by his job or the associated servant leadership metaphor. He reminds us of the importance of having real passion for whatever we do because, more than pay, the joy we bring to others should serve as the true reward for our life’s work. Sam also redefines the meaning of the word “perfect.” Interestingly enough, it’s not about perfection at all.

Pick up a copy of The Offsite. Find out how Sam uses the word “perfect” and discover your own favorite character. There are some great ones, but to me, Sam is…well…perfect.

Iowa and The Pervasive Role of Peer Influence

All you have to do is check out the findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer to understand why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had such strong showings in tonight’s Iowa caucuses.  Consider that Sanders polled at just 7% in Iowa a year ago, and Trump, while a well-known brand, finished second despite lacking the necessary ground game that’s been historically required to finish in the top tier.   Chris Matthews regarded tonight’s caucuses as a resounding defeat for the establishment.  According to Edelman, trust in institutions, whether it’s media, government, business or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), continues to wane.  So it stands to reason that trust in institutional or establishment candidates has taken a hit as well.

What happens when people can’t trust their institutions?  They lean on each other for advice and support.  People will trust the prevailing sentiment of their peers – peers who share a common interest in a candidate during a particular moment in time – more than they will rely on the media or the leadership of either political party.

Young people have spread the word among one another that Bernie is their guy.  They gather in huge numbers at his events and extend their formidable reach on social media.  Up to now, the only question was whether this enthusiasm would translate into votes.  It appears that, at least in Iowa, we have our answer.  As the Sanders campaign enters the New Hampshire primary, they do so with a new bounce in their step.  Trump’s followers don’t share a specific age demographic, so much as they are bound by a common anger at nuanced policies, the gridlock of institutional politics, and a landscape littered with political correctness – especially when it comes across as disingenuous.  2016 is not the year for the “contrived candidate.”

The most recent Edelman survey showed that “trust is rising in the elite or ‘informed public’ group – those with at least a college education, who are very engaged in media, and have an income in the top 25 percent.  However, in the ‘mass population’ (the remaining 85 percent of our sample), trust levels have barely budged since the Great Recession.”  While each candidate approaches the issue of unfairness differently, it’s definitely resonating among the 85% who are tired of getting the short end of the deal!  It’s no wonder they’re seeking someone who is different.

Does this mean that none of the establishment candidates have a chance to win their party’s nomination for president?  Of course not.  They just have to stop acting like establishment candidates and start tapping into the power of peers that’s at work during this election year! On to New Hampshire!

Update: Sanders and Trump win big in New Hampshire!

 

 

How Peer Advantage Drives Innovation

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of serving on a panel at an event co-sponsored by the Chicago Innovation Awards and Vistage at 1871 in Chicago called “The Best Advice I Ever Got.”  I can’t remember the last time I felt such electricity at a gathering of CEOs, business owners, and their key executives.  The venue, which is described as an entrepreneurial hub for digital startups, just screamed innovation.  The Chicago Innovation Awards, which was established in 2002, serves to shine a bright light on the spirit of innovation that lives within the city of Chicago.  The event certainly delivered!

During our 45-minute panel discussion, I was asked to comment on the research we conducted for our book The Power of Peers and the role peer advantage can play in driving innovation.  So as I’m flying home from the event, I thought I’d share it with you.

Peer advantage is what happens when people engage their peers (preferably outside their company and industry sector) in a group setting that’s highly selective, strategic and purposeful.  A CEO Peer Advisory Group is a good example of a group that experiences peer advantage – peer influence of a higher order!  If you think about innovation as “creativity realized,” our research showed that groups not only provide its members with news ways of thinking (which is great for the creativity part), but even more importantly, because of their culture of accountability, these groups help members implement these new ideas. Without the implementation part, it’s not an innovation, it’s just a wish!

A big thanks to everyone who made last night’s event possible. I really enjoyed learning from the other panelists and meeting Chicago’s innovators!  Very cool!

Sharing A Major Discovery

Carol Tometsko is the Chief Executive Officer and President of Litron Laboratories in Rochester, NY, which she co-founded in 1976 with her late husband Dr. Andrew M. Tometsko.   Starting this company was her husband’s dream. Andrew and Carol both worked at the National Lab in Brookhaven on Long Island. Carol quit her job to complete her undergraduate degree and then she and her husband moved from Long Island to Rochester in 1966 with their 6 week old son Drew.   For the next ten years, Andrew taught and conducted research at the University of Rochester Medical Center in biochemistry and Carol was a stay-at-home-mom earning her graduate degree evenings.

One day Andrew came home from the University and said, “What do you think about starting our own business?”   Carol couldn’t believe her ears. Andrew loved research and teaching, but the politics of academic life just didn’t suit him. She knew he was frustrated there, so when he said, “Let’s do this thing,” she went to her aerobics class, parked on the side of the road on her way home, had a good cry, walked in the door, and said, “Sure, let’s do it.”

Fast forward nearly two decades, and their company, Litron Laboratories, was still in business, largely because they were extremely successful in obtaining government grants. Then, in 1994 when Carol was at the airport, she received a call that Andrew had passed away. She went back to the lab to find two employees who were as grief stricken as she was, and it was in that moment that she decided to continue to run the business.  Carol’s tenacity and passion to improve human health was the reason Litron survived the difficult period after Andrew’s death. Yet, at this point in her life, Carol was still wearing a scientist’s hat and while she considered hiring outside leadership to run the company, she did not.

By this time, Litron had developed a kit for the Ames test, which is one of many genetic toxicology tests that have to be run before a new drug, chemical, or medical device can enter the marketplace. Other scientists at the time were saying, “You know, kits are the way to go because in this day and age, nobody wants to take chemicals off the shelf for fear of contamination.” In 1995, Litron began developing and selling kits, but Carol understood that she couldn’t build a company based on that approach alone. Carol said, “ We knew we had to get involved in new genetic toxicology areas. That’s where we sort of were stumped.”

In 1997, Tom Merkel, a personal friend of Carol’s, suggested she join a CEO peer advisory group. Carol said that it was her group members who taught her the word “collaboration”. Up until that time, her world pitted scientist against scientist in a race for who would arrive at the answer first, so when the group suggested the idea of collaborating with other scientists, she found it somewhat frightening, but an intriguing idea for scaling her business. Carol’s main scientist Steve Dertinger agreed.

Today, Carol is still a member of her group and under her leadership, Litron has transformed from an organization once dependent on government grants into an international technology company providing support to laboratories in 37 countries. Carol did it by stepping outside her company (and the world of science) to make one of her greatest discoveries – the value of peer advantage.

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.

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