The Executive Group: Is Peer Coaching for You?

Over the course of your career, you may be given the opportunity to have personal leadership coaching.  Even well-run business training events can be a form of coaching.  As your horizon widens, making a good choice can help you rev up your productivity or suck away time and money.

Until 2009, I ran a small consulting firm with a few dozen employees and a subcontractors.  Feeling overwhelmed with my first CEO role, I joined a CEO peer group: Vistage International.  Promising to help build” Better Leaders, Decisions & Results,” Vistage extracted over $1500 per month from me for two coaching sessions a month: a one-on-one session with a group leader and a full day session with my group of ~8 people. I also gained access to their extensive online library, guest speakers and special events among other things.  In full Vistage groups, there are 10-15 CEO’s in non-competing businesses who meet together to hold one another accountable for results and work on issues together.  I suppose they are meant to work like a Board of Directors.  Vistage refers to the group as an Advisory Board of Peers.

There are lots of resources like this: YPO (Young Presidents Organization), WPO (Wome’ns Presidents Organization), Excell, there are others.  The idea is to give support and coaching to leaders in companies where they suffer from “lonely at the top” syndrome.  Looking for assistance in growth, development, idea exchange and real-time problem solving are just some of the reasons a CEO might join a group like that.  And there is a certain status/prestige/networking component as well.

I belonged to that group for over a year and can say that looking back I question the value of the money spent on it.  There were some benefits. I met a group of (men) whom I would not have otherwise met and learned a great deal about their businesses.  But, to be truthful, none of us have kept in touch since I left the group.  I was able to meet a few business “experts” who had written books and came to speak to our group for a fee.  I found the online library, database and FAQ’s interesting reading during the limited down time I had.

But, my primary memory of the group was the feeling that it was a psychotherapy session for the most vocal members being run by a leader who had purchased a franchise.  As a franchise operator, he was constantly looking for new members to add to our small group.  More members would indeed add value to us: more money for speakers and events, a more diverse business perspective.  But mostly, it would help our leader have a more stable income as our small team added and dropped members.  The cast of characters were all working through issues: buying a business from a parent who was having trouble letting go, leading a company while a spouse took an extended mental break, leaving an early semi-retirement because business conditions had tanked.  We spent a lot of time talking about feelings and not nearly enough talking about business.  And I am sure those members needed it.

The structure was there to create value: Meet with the coach, lay out your business goals, test and validate the business plan with the team, have the team hold you accountable to the goals, spend time working through current issues. All the while, bringing in new speakers to expose us to new ideas and perspectives to managing business.  But when I looked at the finances, I couldn’t justify the membership fees for the value I derived.

I have had past experiences with executive coaching: RHR International – a kind of psychologist for executive leaders – and an immersion session at Center for Creative Leadership, where we delved into every assessment tool of leadership I have ever heard of.  But ultimately, there has to be a perfect chemistry for executive coaching to work.

  1. You have to like to talk.  About yourself, your business perspective, your challenges, your life.  A day with a coach or a peer team is exhausting for introverts.
  2. You have to have the time.  You have to buy into devoting time on yourself and your skills as a benefit to your company.  If you resent the time you spend with your coach or your group, you will not stay long.  If you prioritize other items ahead of your sessions, you will spend a lot of money on nothing.  Most groups don’t allow more than 1 or 2 absenses a year before you are asked to leave the group.
  3. You have to be open to trying new things.  I recall one CEO who used our monthly meetings as a podium to tell us all how wonderful his company was, how great a leader he was, how brilliant he was at people development, fiscal decisions, operational efficiencies, etc.  He didn’t join to consider new ways of doing things as much as to create another audience to listen to his personal marketing campaign.  I’m sure the group met his ego’s needs, but I don’t think his business benefitted by new outside ideas.
  4. You have to be committed to making it work.  In the case of all three coaching programs I have had, the coach/group only minimally held me accountable for changing.  Many times I saw CEO’s make excuses for not taking action or making changes that the month prior they were dedicated to doing.  As a CEO, you get to make the final call about whether to do something or not.  If you choose not to change a policy, decision or project, no one can question it.  You are the only one who can make the change happen.

I am really not bashing these groups, or my Vistage group particularly.  I think they have the potential to be helpful IF you get the right leader and the right group at the right time for your career.  But be careful.  I have replaced my group with a much smaller business book budget at Amazon and a group of trusted friends.  And my new business is going strong.

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