Joining Forces

Peer Power

The groups usually meet monthly for several hours and may also have an annual extended session that lasts for several days. At typical meetings, members brief the group on their businesses' conditions and are encouraged to bring up any business problems, expansion plans or even personal issues they're facing. Then the other members, who are typically drawn from a variety of industries, apply their insights and experience to solving the problems.

In effect, the peer group acts as a board of directors. Many groups are run by paid facilitators, often moonlighting business consultants, who augment the other members' expertise. In some organizations, the members can consult privately with the facilitator for an additional fee.

Surprisingly, business isn't necessarily the main thing discussed. Egge consistently found that sharing personal issues is as important to members as finding solutions to business problems. Members talk about matters as private as marital difficulties and as sensitive as whether to split with a business partner.

But don't think these forums are merely conversation clubs, says Jim Fontanella, president and founder of Renaissance Executive Forums, a La Jolla, California, peer group with 50 to 60 groups in the United States. He says, "It's kind of lonely to run a business. And it's nice to have a group of folks who do what you do."

To deal effectively with such a range of issues, groups should be careful to select members from a variety of fields. "One of the major benefits is a cross-fertilization of ideas from people who are not in your field," says Allen Fishman, CEO of The Alternative Board TAB, a Denver-based peer group. "Some of the best ideas will come from people who aren't locked into your historical ways of thinking."

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This article was originally published in the June 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Joining Forces.

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