Entrepreneurial life is full of problems. Such as the client that owes you $66,000 and went bankrupt yesterday. Or the rival who is deliberately undercutting your prices to unsustainable levels. Or the growth-impeding partner you need to drive out of the business — and who happens to be your dad.
Where would you turn for help in such nightmare scenarios? For members of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), the answer is easy: Forum. That’s the name of the small-group discussion meetings attended monthly by the members of Alexandria, Va.-based EO, which has more than 600 members in Canada. In fact, challenges almost identical to those listed above have been faced by the entrepreneurs in one eight-member group in the past three months alone.
PROFIT interviewed Forum insiders and even attended one of these ultra-private meetings in order to illustrate the value of peer-advisory group participation and provide a model you can adapt to any peer group you form on your own. (Due to the sensitive nature of the situations described here, PROFIT has changed some names and details to ensure the anonymity of the entrepreneurs involved.)
You’ll find many executive peer-advisory groups in Canada and abroad, and most organize discussion in the Forum vein. All exploit the underappreciated fact that most entrepreneurial challenges are shared, even across sectoral and geographical divides. By assembling regularly for structured discussions, entrepreneurs can exchange ideas and experiences that help one another seize opportunities and overcome obstacles as they arise.
At the heart of every Forum meeting is a short presentation made by one pre-selected entrepreneur, in which he outlines an issue he’d like his colleagues to help him resolve. Karl Huber has made many such presentations in his six years of Forum membership. “When it really works well, it gives you that trusted group you can talk to about things you wouldn’t want to talk about with anyone else,” says Huber, who owns a customer-service consultancy and belongs to the Forum group observed by PROFIT. “It gives me a chance to learn from others who’ve lived through the same challenges I’m going through or can put me in touch with people who have.” He says Forum helped him buy out a former business partner (“We couldn’t even sit in the same room”) and to get out of two marital engagements gone sour.
If you don’t think you could divulge such private details of your entrepreneurial life, you’re within the norm. “I wasn’t used to talking about my total sales or how much money I make,” says marketing entrepreneur Sarah Noble, another member of Huber’s group. That’s one reason why all Forum newcomers attend a one-day training session on Forum protocols and how to speak casually about topics usually considered taboo. “They throw you into the fire, and you have to tell a bunch of strangers about the highs and lows of your life,” says Noble of her training experience.
Still, nothing allows Forum members to open up more than the trust that grows over time, plus strict observance of the guiding principles of Forum: confidentiality, personal responsibility and Gestalt language protocol.
The demand for confidentiality is a no-brainer. As for personal responsibility: “It goes back to the adage that you can only take out what you put in,” says Noble. That means not only contributing to the group discussions, but also applying the lessons learned at Forum meetings. Like the castaway communities on TV’s Survivor, Forum groups are self-governing and can vote non-contributing members “off the island.”
It could be said that entrepreneurs have two forceful instincts: to tell other people what to do, and to hate being told what to do. That’s the inspiration for Forum’s third cornerstone: Gestalt language protocol. For anyone not educated in the esoterica of psychotherapy, “Gestalt” means this in the Forum context: although members are encouraged to share personal experiences relevant to the situation of the colleague they are trying to help, giving advice is not permitted. (Which makes “peer-advisory group” a misnomer in the case of EO.)
“It gets tough because you’re always resisting the urge to say, ‘You should do this, you should do that,'” says Huber. But exerting such self-control allows the presenting member to form her own solution and take responsibility for applying it. And, says Renee Manning, EO’s vice-president of learning and Forum, “If [the solution] doesn’t work, then you won’t be able to blame anybody else.”
The presenter at each meeting is scheduled in advance, and determined by a simple rotation through the group’s roster — although scheduled presentations can be bumped to address the pressing need of another group member.
It was Noble’s turn to present when PROFIT sat in on her Forum group. Her challenge: an unmotivated group of employees who believe they’re underpaid and tend to pass the buck when problems arise. Noble’s frustration has been exacerbated by her belief, fed by management books and magazines, that companies can’t achieve long-term success without a roster full of “A players.”
After Noble lays out her situation and provides examples over the course of five minutes (most presentations last 20 minutes or more), her colleagues get three minutes each to ask “clarifying questions,” which help them shape the experience they’ll later share. Among the 20 or so questions Noble fields are, “Do you have a daily huddle?”, “What are your company’s values?” and “How often do you do performance reviews?” Noble says the clarifying questions are valuable even to the presenter because they’re often prescriptions in disguise: “What I’m thinking is, ‘I do my reviews annually, but is that often enough?'”
The Q&A is followed by the all-important sharing of experiences. In the four minutes Huber is allotted at this particular meeting, he recounts how he educates his staff in the values he has ascribed to his firm, which gives underperformers a touchstone when they’re receiving coaching or performance reviews. “This way,” says Huber, “it’s not about me; it’s about what the company stands for.”
Another of Noble’s peers says his years as a business owner have taught him that “everyone thinks you make more than you do and is too simple to understand what it costs to run your business.” Several group members say they’ve never been able to attract and retain more than a few excellent employees at a time. “So, does that mean you have to accept that you’ll never have all A players?” asks Noble. “Yes,” booms one entrepreneur in response — much to Noble’s relief.
Although Noble’s problem-solving session lasted barely an hour, it gives her enough ideas and insight to craft a remedy. Within a couple of weeks, she dismisses one problem employee and tailors performance incentives specific to each job role within her small firm.
And Noble will be back to give, rather than receive, at the next month’s meeting. Even when her peer-discussion group isn’t focused on her own challenges, she says, “There’s rarely a time when it isn’t relevant to my business.”