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For much of the last decade, I've advised top-flight farm operators to copy other small-business owners and form peer advisory groups. Car dealers, insurance brokers and elder lawyers, for example, might meet on a regular basis with six to eight peers from across the country and a professional facilitator to discuss self improvement and coax changes to their business.
I have focused so much on their potential advantages and success in other industries, that I assumed business-oriented producers would know what it takes to make peer advisory groups work. That was a mistake, and for that reason, too many are no more than farmer discussion groups.
In order to be successful, members need to take ownership of the group, determine its objective and decide what their specific priorities are. Besides taking ownership, members need to look at participation from the standpoint of an investment in continuous management improvement rather than as a cost of time and money. Peer groups are a joint venture and everyone needs to contribute and pull their weight in order to make them successful. They are a participatory, not a passive, investment. If members are open and honest, there is much to learn from each other's mistakes and successes.
The facilitator isn't there to be a teacher or subject matter expert. The facilitator's role is to make sure the agenda is put together and distributed well ahead of the meeting. He/she needs to keep the meeting flowing, to make sure no one dominates the discussion, to pull in non-participating members and read the people to spot developing personality related issues. If there is a host operation, they need to work with the host ahead of time to make sure there is a plan for the visit to assure the critical areas are covered.
The facilitators also need to be sure information about what is going to be discussed gets distributed far enough ahead of time for members to have time to think about their questions and comments. If outside experts are to be invited, the facilitator needs to handle the logistics and make sure the speaker focuses on the needs of the members. At times, they may need to speak to individual members privately to diffuse what may be developing problems. Finally, they need to follow up with the members on the take-aways and the commitments made during the meeting.
Peer groups where both the CEO and the successor participate can be one of the best successor development programs available, while also allowing the CEO to learn ways he/she can be more effective in the successor's development.
Between meetings, members of peer groups also need to use their group's list serve or chat room more frequently. They need to share information or insights they feel would be of interest to the group, or they could share an issue or opportunity they are facing or considering. They should also share their perspective and options (alternatives) they are considering.