By Dr. Marsha Firestone
One of the common characteristics of million-dollar businesses owned by women is that they take advantage of professional advisors. Beyond the obvious use of lawyers, accountants, and a board of directors, these women often belong to highly selective advisory groups. Women entrepreneurs form these peer advisory groups for the purpose of sharing expertise and finding solutions to significant business challenges.
A peer advisory group allows you to connect with women who deal with similar issues. Laurie Kahn, president of Media Staffing Network & All About Careers, says of her peer group in the Women Presidents’ Organization, "I find it very important to be able to meet and talk with other women who experience some of the same issues. Other friends may not understand what a business owner goes through in an average day.”
Members of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), which serves women entrepreneurs of businesses that generate at least $2 million in gross annual sales, maintain that their peer advisory groups have helped them achieve greater business success through the processes of confirmation, collaboration, confidentiality, and connections. Here’s how:
- Confirmation: A peer advisory group serves as your informal board of directors who listen, advise, and validate your experiences. Besides obtaining new business information, the benefits range from decreased isolation to fresh business strategies.
- Collaboration: The group widens your circle of contacts across diverse backgrounds and industries. Business alliances may be forged with other members. The participants commonly see increased revenues in their businesses along with decreased costs.
- Confidentiality: Members trade solutions while respecting trade secrets. They build strong bonds with other members and return to their respective work environments reenergized and revitalized.
- Connections: Recently the president of BrightStar Healthcare, a WPO member, sold her first franchise to the daughter of another WPO member. This business sale is an excellent example of the connections made through peer advising and the impact on women and their businesses.
The CEO of Royal Coachman Worldwide, Amy Birnbaum, praises her WPO peer advisory group: “In the Women Presidents’ Organization, I have met and befriended some incredible women with amazing expertise who have advised me on business strategies and issues.”
Here are some other key findings about the value of peer advisory groups:
- Entrepreneurs learn faster and better from one another
Within a peer advisory group, the primary goal is to bring out the group’s “genius.” Collaborative learning draws out the insight and wisdom of each individual participant, resulting in a mix of ideas that benefits the whole.
Adult learning theory tells us that adults prefer to define for themselves what and when to learn, a concept I call “just-in-time learning.” In this type of learning, the learner decides for herself what skills and knowledge she needs to strengthen and when she needs to accomplish it. Research by the Edward Lowe Foundation (www.edwardlowe.org), an organization that helps entrepreneurs navigate second-stage growth through retreats and online forums, indicates that entrepreneurs learn faster and better when they learn from one another.
- A willingness to be open and honest is essential
The effectiveness of the group is entirely dependent on the participants’ willingness to share. Only when people are open about discussing their finances and other sensitive issues will the group benefit the most.
Negativity and criticism of the ideas of others is unacceptable and counterproductive to the learning process. The opportunity to come out of a peer group experience with the best new ideas is only possible when the group leadership ensures that no one will be criticized or treated unprofessionally.
The most effective learning experiences come about as a result of relationships forged within a bonded group. Bonding is the strongest when members have respect for each other and have the patience and understanding to really listen. A feeling of closeness and identity with one another are hallmarks of effective peer advisory groups. Having fun together is important to bonding and could mean a celebration, going out to dinner, or just sharing a story and a good laugh.
- You’ll benefit by seeking out peers outside your own industry
Finding the right peer advisory group for your needs can be difficult. Most entrepreneurs join professional organizations and attend conferences within their own industries, but keep in mind that a peer advisory group should include members from noncompeting industries. Check out the Web for focus groups and professional organizations that sponsor advisory groups of 8-20 members from various industries and backgrounds. Another source is the Directory of Women’s Associations, a resource that lists network groups of interest to women. You’ll find that there is no substitute for developing bonds with your peers across industries.
Are you looking for help in your business? Check out this AMA webinar to help create better relationships which will allow you to accomplish more and grow your business.
About the Author(s)
Dr. Marsha Firestone is the founder and president of the Women Presidents’ Organization, a group for women whose businesses gross over two million dollars annually. Dr. Firestone was previously Vice President of Women Incorporated and of Training and Counseling at the American Woman’s Economic Development Corporation (AWED). In 2000, she was appointed to the National Women’s Business Council, which reports to the president and Congress on issues of importance to women in business. She was part of the official delegation to the Overseas Economic Development Council in Istanbul, Turkey.