Peer Groups: Why Ten Heads are Always Better than One

A great leader knows that they have limits to their endurance and resilience; that they have a finite pool of knowledge to draw upon and that they can never have all the answers. They know that they are just human and subject to human failings and limitations. Great leaders know that, however good they are, they cannot do it alone. Unless you’re made of Teflon-coated steel then maybe you can do it on your own. But very few of us are that tough and resilient every day.

Read on to find out why you can’t be a great leader without great peers.

Why listen to me?

As an MD, I was a member of a Vistage peer group for several years, then a member of The Alternative Board (another type of peer group) for three years. I now have the satisfaction of running a peer group myself for the Manufacturers Alliance in Yorkshire, the only peer group in the region dedicated to manufacturing organisations. I embrace everything that peer groups offer, both as a former member and as a current Chair. I’ve sat on both sides of the table.

I believe a modern business leader that wants to progress and stay ahead of the curve, should be in a peer group. Think of the incredible value a collection of wise heads with no agenda could offer you. People who have sat where you sit. Had the same challenges and opportunities in their businesses. Celebrated similar successes and cried the same tears of frustration. People with the knowledge and experience to make a practical difference to your business. People with empathy for what it is to lead an organisation and people who are an everyday inspiration. That is what a peer group meant and means to me.

Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of business

Business always changes; it never stands still. In business, I believe it is genuinely ‘Change or Die’. Your business will inevitably die if you do not evolve. The rate of change of the business environment is ever-increasing and change cannot be ignored by any organisation or any leader. Leaders must bring fresh thinking, innovation, and ideas into their organisation. There are different ways to do that for their business strategy, but peer groups stand out as a tried and tested method to achieve that goal.

When I ran a manufacturing company, I had a great team of practical people working for me. They could be trusted with the everyday running of the business. They were committed and dedicated. I developed them as much as I could, and they often excelled at what they did. But I knew that they were not going to bring much new, innovative thinking to my business.

More importantly, I knew that I could not be relied on to do that either. So, if I wanted to be the best leader I could be, where would I get new thinking from? Where would I get to hear about the latest ideas and techniques for managing businesses? How would I be able to benchmark what I did as a leader against others? How would I satisfy my desire to be better tomorrow than I am today?

Peer groups bring new ideas to your business. Many peer groups have speakers who bring new ideas and thoughts, adding to what you already know. In some cases, industry leaders at the top of their game, that want to give something back, will share knowledge and experience. In other cases, a more day-to-day expert in their niche area will provide really useful tips from the coal face.

And never forget the collective wisdom around the table. A typical peer group will have over 100 years of director experience around the table. What a resource to draw on!

Because you aren’t alone…

It is often said it is lonely at the top. If you are the MD of your business, and especially if you are an owner manager, then you are at the apex of a pyramid, usually with space for only one person. And because the buck stops with one person. You are alone in this responsibility. Carrying the weight of expectation of your entire company on your shoulders. And this is hard work, tiring and can be brutal.

Who do you turn to when you need inspiration, a friend, some support? It is often impossible to go to our direct reports – they might be part of the problem. Taking issues home might not be the best idea either. A supportive home partner or other family members could be interested in listening and providing emotional support but might be unable or unwilling to provide the practical support necessary. And some business owners feel that they cannot take their work problems and issues home with them. They want to protect their family life as best they can, so they carry their challenges and stresses alone.

Being part of a peer group addresses many of these concerns. You have peers with similar talents and experiences, who understand what it means to be an MD or business owner. They are the pastoral support on an emotional level and can assist on a very practical level. A good leader knows that they must lean on others on occasion and like-minded people with no agenda are plentiful in a peer group.

You need to be challenged and held accountable

As an employed MD, I was rarely challenged and rarely held accountable. It is one of the joys of being at the head of an organisation that you are rarely held accountable, even by a Board. But this is also often a block to getting things done.

I often see MDs and leaders going unchallenged by their teams. I see a ‘boss knows best’ attitude. It is not that every organisation is full of ‘yes-men’, but people inside your organisation always have a self-interest. Are they sharing how they really feel? Are they challenging you on what needs to be challenged? Can they really speak honestly in front of you? Even in the most open and vocal of organisations, I do not believe that the person at the top is challenged enough.

A peer group has no such worries. The other members have no agenda or self-interest; they just want you to succeed. They will ask the tough questions that need to be asked. They will see your business with a clarity that amazes you. Because they see it from the outside with educated eyes. They will make you think hard about every assumption you ever made about your business, your strategy, your products, and your customers. Your ideas and thoughts will be given a rigorous and sometimes painful working over, so that you can create robust plans and actions for your organisation.

And then they will make you accountable for those actions. Letting down a group of peers who care about you is a hard thing to do. It was one of the main motivators when I was a peer group member. Sometimes I had difficult decisions or action to take and without accountability I could easily put them off or fudge it. Or just put it off forever. Making sure we are focussing on the important leadership work rather than the daily ‘froth’ of operations, is one of the main benefits I got from being in a peer group.

The best leaders are self-starters and never need any motivation to take action. However, there are many more ‘mere mortals’ who sometimes need encouragement. If you are the top of your organisation, who holds you accountable? Who makes sure you do that job, this week, instead of putting it off to next week, or next year, or never do it at all? A coach might help and maybe your coach is part of your peer group experience. But the most powerful accountability in a peer group comes from the peers themselves. The idea of going into a room of people who care about you, who you respect for their experience and achievement, who have invested time in trying to help you find a way forward, and saying ‘Sorry, I didn’t have time to do it’ or ‘I will get onto it next month’ is not something that I ever wanted to do. As a leader with a tendency for procrastination, the fear of letting down my peer group often helped drive me to do unpopular but important activities that I know had to be done.

Because EVERYONE has people problems

Good leaders in the 21st century spend a lot of time thinking about their people. They want them to have the right skills, be empowered in the right way and functioning as independently as possible. This requires some level of continuous ‘cultivation’ and attention from the leader.

I would say that in an average session where leaders are sharing their challenges and opportunities, over 60% of the issues and time is spent on ‘people issues’. These are discussions about having the right people operating in the right culture and how to get individuals and teams performing to the highest level. Every business has people in it and every business leader faces the same challenges to select, motivate and develop their team.

When peer groups discuss people issues and opportunities, it is the area with the greatest commonality. It is the area when leaders most often get stuck, where they procrastinate the most and fail to take the decisive actions that are needed. When one person’s personnel issues are discussed, everyone in the room is thinking either ‘that was my problem six months ago’ or ‘that is my problem in three months’ time’. They are some of the toughest decisions that leaders ever have to make. The camaraderie and support around the table for people having to make difficult and soul-searching decisions on the lives of their employees is a joy to witness.

What next?

I hope this article has inspired you to look at peer groups as an option to support you in your own personal growth and decision making. To help you become a modern leader with a finger on the pulse.
If you are a UK manufacturer looking to meet other like-minded individuals with no ego’s, then please contact The Manufacturers Alliance. We would be happy to offer you a free taster session to test the water with one of our groups and experience the power of a peer group for yourself.

Who would want to do this alone when there are so many heads waiting to help? Join us.

This article has been written by Jonathan Wurr, Chair of the Yorkshire Manufacturers Alliance group. Jonathan fell in love with manufacturing in his Grandad’s Leeds pickle factory at the age of 8 and has been involved in manufacturing and industrial processes all his life. He has held key roles in Coca-Cola, Nalco’s, Hays Chemicals (now Brenntag) and Francis Ward. He has a passion for developing people and seeing businesses improve.