Peer Groups On The Rise

When business leaders are faced with a challenge, nothing is as powerful as peer advice.

Imagine a room with 15 seasoned executives, each with decades of experience. That means 400-500 years of business acumen and expertise in the room of a private advisory board meeting —of unbiased and supportive peers.

This is the situation for the members of the two Vistage peer advisory groups in Honolulu. One group is for presidents and CEOs, and the other is for the “right hand” C-suite executives and small business owners.

SmartBrief and Big Think interviewed Robert Kaplan, a professor at the Harvard Business School, on why senior executives need a support group.

“It’s lonely at the top.”

Though perhaps a clichéd sentiment among the top-brass, professional isolation can be a very real problem that can cause senior-level executives serious trouble along the way, maintains Robert Kaplan, a professor at the Harvard Business School.

“You don’t have that many people above you … and so therefore many of the decisions you are ruminating over affect all those people below you. And you feel like, ‘Boy, I’d love to talk to them about it, but I don’t think I can,’ ” Kaplan said.

Instead, Kaplan recommends that bosses take proactive steps to cultivate a support group of professional peers who can provide authentic feedback about decisions and work performance. When leaders have support groups, the top isn’t so lonely anymore, and senior executives can make better informed business decisions.

“It’s when you are isolated that you make poor decisions. If I’ve got nobody to talk to and am under a lot of pressure and I have to make a tough decision … I am probably more likely to make a poor one,” Kaplan said. (1)

Catlin & Cookman Group facilitate peer groups for executives in Maryland. In an article, Peer Groups Help CEOs Succeed In Today’s High Risk/High Reward Environment, Katharine Catlin and her colleagues quote their peer group members citing the value they are getting.

The following are excerpts from the article:

Business today is undergoing a revolution—as all the fundamentals of how companies start and grow are dramatically changing. Moving at lightning speed in a fiercely competitive environment, companies must meet the conflicting demands of customers, investors, employees, partners, and board members for bigger, better, faster results.

This pressure from all sides falls squarely on the shoulders of the CEO, whose job has never been tougher. Difficult decisions must be made quickly and thoughtfully —and they have to be the right decisions in this high risk world that has little tolerance for mistakes.

“By talking openly with others who truly understand the pressures of the leadership role, member CEOs can challenge each other’s assumptions, compare what has worked and what hasn’t, and come away with ideas and insights they wouldn’t have thought of on their own. They also test and get confirmation on their own thinking that gives them the confidence to move forward,” said Katherine Catlin.

The biggest problem for CEOs who are not in a group yet is finding the time to participate. Since they’re busy juggling so many priorities, it can seem impossible to take time “away” from the business. Yet CEOs have discovered that the opposite is true, since the time is actually spent focusing “on” the business in a totally new — and often more intense — way than if they didn’t participate.

“I walk out of CEO Forum meetings energized and with ideas and viewpoints that I didn’t have when I went in about how to help move my business forward,” says Phillip Green, CEO of Inmagic, Inc., in Woburn, MA.

“. . . going up to 60,000 feet to think about your business in a big picture way is unbelievably valuable. You get far more out of the time you spend than you could get from doing anything else with that time, much more, for instance, than if you spent the time fighting all the usual fires.”(2)


1. Smart Brief partners with Big Think to create a weekly video spotlight called VIP Corner. Robert Kaplan, professor at Harvard Business School, was featured on December 27, 2011. Article by Lynn Paul.

2. Peer Groups Help CEOS Succeed in Today’s High Risk/High Reward Environment. Catlin & Cookman Group (