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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Executive Networking

By Andy Lopata
UK Bureau Chief

“None of us is as smart as all of us”. The strapline for Footdown sums up the focus of an increasing number of Chief Executive and Leadership networks in the UK.

There is a growing recognition that there is no need for business leaders to plough on alone, learning from their own mistakes and having to hide any vulnerability in order to set a strong lead. While support for CEOs may be hard to come by within their own organisations, many have discovered the benefits of working closely with others in a similar position to themselves.

Footdown is a mentoring and peer group for entrepreneurs, directors and senior executives. It was founded by British entrepreneur, Andrew Mercer, who had sold his software company to the technology giant Oracle in 1998. Rather than basking in his success, Mercer recognised his shortcomings as a businessman and opportunities he had missed. He felt that, with more support at critical stages of the company’s growth, the success of his business could have been so much greater and it could have been publicly listed.

Mercer believed that the creation of a group environment for people in a similar position to share their experiences, discuss challenges and offer solutions would help other people achieve more than he had been able to. His approach wasn’t unique, nor was it new. Such groups have been operating in the UK for a number of years and worldwide for over half a century.

Vistage International was founded as The Executive Committee (TEC) by Wisconsin businessman Robert Nourse in 1957 for similar reasons and they now have a worldwide presence. Richard Alberg was a member of TEC for five years before he sold his psychometric testing company in November 2006. He found the process invaluable.

“When I joined TEC I did not have a strategic direction for my business. My objectives were growing the business whilst avoiding going bust. TEC helped me think about strategy and exit. I sold the business in 2006 and it was guidance from my TEC group and chairman that helped me appreciate what I needed to do to make my business attractive and valuable.”

Richard joined originally because he realised that he was learning on the job and making a lot of mistakes. As the head of the organisation, there was no-one for him to bounce ideas off, or to be inspired by. In his TEC group he found that he had a sounding board for ideas and people who would hold him to account for his actions, a key need for a business leader.

For Jo Wright, a member of Footdown in Bath, the support of her Leadership group is equally as important. When she joined, Jo had moved through her organisation, Feilden Clegg Bradley, to the position of Finance Partner, despite her training as an architect rather than as an accountant.

When the Senior Partners approached Jo to become Managing Partner, the members of her Footdown group took her through an evaluation process to help her decide whether the position would be right for her and how to make it work, without losing touch with the design side that brought her into the business in the first place.

“It’s given me more of a feel for the business side of the practice”, said Jo. “I now have a much better insight into how businesses operate and are led and therefore it’s moving towards making me more effective as a potential leader for this business.”

Having founded The Academy for Chief Executives (ACE) in 1996, Brian Chernett has seen similar stories in a number of their groups. “In one group alone there have been nine members selling their businesses for more than £3m. They would tell you that this had a lot to do with the support and help of the group.”

ACE was formed as Brian felt that TEC’s approach could be improved. “At the time I was working for our major competitor – TEC (Vistage) - and felt that there was a need to focus more on the softer skills of leadership and this didn’t appear to be a belief cherished by the American operators of TEC. Therefore I left to set up the Academy. Today you will find the processes very similar to those within Vistage but the philosophy is very different.”

Like Footdown and many similar groups, ACE follows a very recognisable format, with an expert speaker working in the group before lunch and a session in the afternoon that Brian calls “the Board you could never afford and the agenda you could never have” where members share their challenges and find the solutions to overcome them. Like other groups, members will meet with the Group Chairman once a month for a 1:2:1 coaching session.

John Cremer, a business speaker who runs an improvisation company, The Maydays, finds that the ‘softer’ approach of ACE works very well for his group.

“I find with ACE there is a feeling of continuity and sharing as equals, more like a family” said John. “I think this is due to the emphasis placed on personal as well as professional development, they are seen as inseparable.

“This seems to make differences in status or income level between members largely irrelevant.”

The personal development opportunities clearly stand out for John. “To see a fellow member rapidly make a huge and difficult shift in his personal life as a direct result of robust feedback from the group is priceless. I doubt he could have made such a transformation elsewhere.”

Roger Harrop, a CEO Expert, who has spoken to over 50 such groups and is a former ACE Speaker of the Year said, “I love working with these groups – the members are generally highly motivated and totally trusting of their fellow group members. This means that objective and meaningful discussion takes place, real actions agreed and, most importantly, each is held to account by the others.”

The trust that Roger speaks of is one of the main keys to success of such groups. It is important for members to feel confident sharing core concerns and to be completely open with their colleagues.

Confidentiality, respect and trust are cornerstones for all of the Leadership groups. Jay Hale, Co-Chairman of The Midlands Leadership Group, recognises that the levels of trust between members are integral not only to encouraging openness and honesty when discussing challenges, but also to the long-term success of the group. Jay’s group actively discourages trading between members.

“Business between members introduces a reason not to be totally open and frank in the issue sessions. There are some things that you might not wish to share with a customer or supplier”, said Jay. “Such activities can weaken the group and cause a rift if things don’t go right. We have heard stories about groups in other organisations breaking up because of commercial disputes between members, although I don’t know if they are true.”

According to David Glassman, a Vistage Group Chairman, the pressures on a modern CEO mean that leadership groups play an important role in encouraging strong decision making, relieve the isolation on business leaders and act as a vital check on hasty actions.

“Groups of peers help in decision making”, said David. “Given the relentlessness of the pressures on CEOs they might not have thought of all the relevant aspects of an issue.

“Equally, CEOs usually have no one to whom they are truly accountable. Often their chairmen, NEDs and functional heads do not challenge at all, let alone constructively, and their (marriage) partners do not inhabit the same planets in terms of being able to understand their business needs.

“CEOs recognise that they are isolated because often they are not fully informed and they feel that they dare not expose their doubts and vulnerabilities even to their key lieutenants. In a group environment, they can discuss proposed changes within a trusted group of colleagues where absolute confidentiality rules. It is cheaper to make mistakes in a presentation to such colleagues who offer (and receive) peer advice from experience and with goodwill than it is to proceed with a project that later has to be aborted.”

‘Networking’ means different things to different people. In the case of groups such as these, it’s not about new business generation, selling to each other or referrals. Instead, the focus is on collaboration, support, feedback, self-development and mentoring.

Pilar Martinez-Vidal, is the MD of Impulse International, a global courier firm located close to Heathrow Airport.

“I wanted to focus more upon the future, but I was too entrenched in the day-to-day running of Impulse. I felt overworked and isolated. When you are in such a position, you can’t share doubts with your staff because they look to you to lead.

“Mentoring makes you accountable to somebody, which pushes you harder to achieve what you’ve set out to do. I have quarterly targets I set with my one-to-one mentor, which I have to report back on. In the group mentoring sessions, my peers act as my non-executive directors.

“It has helped me focus.”

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