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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Peer or Expert?

By Leo Bottary for Vistage.com, published February 10, 2013

Last summer, I wrote a post titled: What Does It Take to be a Great Chair?  I wasn’t talking about a piece of furniture and the requirements of four strong legs and a comfortable seat.  I was referring of course to Vistage Chairs who professionally facilitate CEO and key executive peer advisory boards here in the U.S. and around the world.  (Seems it doesn’t matter where you’re from; everyone can benefit from joining a peer group).  Having never been a Chair, the content for that post was developed largely with the help of our Vistage community’s Best Practice Chairs.   These are the Chairs who make all of our other Chairs even better.  They share their wisdom, experiences, and techniques to help Vistage Chairs deliver the best possible value to their members.

My interest in the topic of peer advisory groups comes in part from my work at Seton Hall University, where I don’t lecture so much as facilitate learning teams for two of its graduate programs.  These students are peers, yet they come from different backgrounds, experiences and vocations.  Together, we create an environment of trust, and the students soon discover they learn as much from one another as they do from their instructor/facilitator.   They also develop a culture of shared responsibility and accountability which only elevates the quality of the learning experience.   It’s a dynamic setting that creates true abundance.  That said, because of the new material we introduce to the students, we tend to lead these student learning teams as more expert than peer.

All of this made me think about Bill George’s book, True North Groups.  Bill George reminds us that the word facilitate means “to make easier.”  The more I’ve talked to our Chairs, the more I’ve come to realize that we have to consider what are we making easier and for whom?  At Vistage, we essentially lead two types of CEO groups.  One is comprised of CEOs leading companies $5 million and higher (CE Groups) while the other consists of business owners who lead companies in the $1 million – $5 million range (SB Groups).  So if you ask the question about whether our Vistage Chairs lead as peers or experts, one quickly comes to conclusion that it depends on the needs of the group.

To generalize a bit, the Vistage Chair who leads an SB group is more likely to facilitate that group in a manner that leans toward expert.  Many of these business leaders are either trying to stabilize their businesses or take them to the next level of size and sophistication.  To do so, they not only depend on their fellow members, but also on the expertise of their Chair.  In the CE Group, Chairs lead CEOs who are far more experienced, so they are faced with a different set of complex challenges.  Here, Chairs tend to lead more as peer.  In either situation it’s always a balance. It’s never 100% one or the other, but striking that balance and getting every drop of value for the members based on their needs and expectations is one of the key the differences between a garden variety facilitator and a Vistage Chair.  Our Chairs are what make Vistage, Vistage.

*Note:  After spending a great deal of time with about 450 Vistage Chairs from all over the world at our International Conference in Dallas, it’s hard not to be inspired to write about the great work they do.  I hope some of our Chairs read this post and offer their comments on this topic – a topic about which I can only scratch the surface without their help.