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The Benefits of Belonging to a CEO Group

Q: What is a CEO group, and should I join one?

A: If you're a business owner or chief executive who wants honest (sometimes brutally honest) feedback on how to do your job better, you could be a prime candidate to join a CEO group.

Also known as an executive peer group, a CEO group typically consists of eight to 16 senior executives who get together for frank discussions on how they can better manage their businesses and, often, their lives. But as Peter Parker learned on his way to becoming Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. Brian Davis, who chairs three CEO groups for San Diego-based Vistage, the nation's largest facilitator of such groups, says members must be willing to divulge their company's biggest challenges and make their own candid contributions to the group.

"I think of a CEO peer group as a gym--it's not a spa or a hospital," says Davis, whose day job is CEO of Leadership Catalysts, an executive coaching firm in Minneapolis. "They all need to be working together."

Davis screens applicants to his groups to ensure that they'll be active participants--his roundtables are for doers, not just listeners. He asks applicants to reveal decisions they wish they could take back, to disclose what's working--and not working--in their businesses and to discuss where they'd like to be in three to five years.

"If they're not willing to talk about those things, we don't need them in the group," Davis says. "If you're not willing to roll up your sleeves, you're not going to be that helpful to other members of the group."

Under the Vistage format, Davis convenes his CEO groups for daylong meetings once a month; he also meets individually with each group member once a month. "World-class athletes have regular meetings with trainers," he explains. "Why shouldn't entrepreneurs?"

Six times a year he'll bring in a guest speaker. The meetings abide by rules of engagement meant to ensure a robust dialogue: No group members are direct competitors, and all discussions are kept strictly confidential.

Davis says CEO groups often serve as a salve when entrepreneurs find themselves singing the lonely-at-the-top blues. "As CEOs you're not always going to hear what you need to hear from your employees or your board," he says. "They come here because people will tell them what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. They really like having an objective sounding board of CEOs whose only agenda is to help you and your business get better."

Ultimately, Davis says, the power of a CEO group stems from the willingness of its members to share their cumulative experience and expertise. "Collectively, there are no blind spots," he says. "Some are great at sales. Some are great at product development. Some are running global businesses. Some run a local family business. What you need to have is diversity in that peer group so that everybody has someone who has been where they are going."

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer in Lebanon Township, N.J., and an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University.

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This article was originally published in the June 2013 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Pack of Top Dogs.

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