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Brian Davis, an industrial organizational psychologist, spent 15 years at Personnel Decisions International, a leadership consulting company. After leaving to start his own practice, he’s established three local executive coaching and peer advisory groups under the Vistage International banner.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

CEO peer groups offer feedback, support

  • Article by: TODD NELSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 23, 2012 - 6:48 PM

Life at the top can be lonely for a CEO.

But it may be less so for the dozen or so CEOs who last week spent a day in St. Paul listening to an expert speaker and then delving, confidentially, into the issues and challenges they face at their companies.

Leading the process was Brian Davis, an industrial organizational psychologist and talent management consultant who now chairs three local CEO and business-owner peer groups. All are affiliated with Vistage International, a for-profit, peer-advisory and executive-coaching membership organization based in San Diego.

A CEO or business owner may have come to the role with a strong executive or entrepreneurial background, Davis said, but still be unprepared for the daunting responsibility and potential isolation that come with leading an organization, large or small. 

"Most never went to CEO school," Davis said. "The CEO role is so different than all the others in terms of total responsibility. The buck stops there. You're the person that can make or break the company and there's no one else to blame if it doesn't go well. So it's helpful to go to a safe haven of fellow CEOs who have a great deal of experience and whose only vested interest is your success."

Davis says he offers just such a haven at monthly meetings of his three Vistage groups, which have 50 members whose companies total $1.2 billion in annual revenue. 

Before becoming a Vistage chair two years ago, Davis spent most of his career as a leadership and talent management consultant for Global 1000 companies at Personnel Decisions International, now PDI Ninth House, the highly regarded global leadership consulting company headquartered in Minneapolis. Davis left a few years ago to start his own practice, executive coaching firm Leadership Catalysts, choosing the Vistage model to bring his experience to small and mid-sized companies.

A CEO peer group can serve as a sounding board for dealing with problems, including decision making, handling difficult employees and setting direction for the company.

Careful what you say

"When you're the CEO, you have to be very careful what you share with your direct reports and the rest of your organization," Davis said. "If you feel you don't have a clue as to what the strategic direction should be, it's not something you want to talk about widely inside the organization.''

What if you're not a CEO? You might hope the person running your company considers joining a group, Davis said.

"When you have a high-performing CEO that cares about their people, it enhances the lives of all those people throughout the organization," he said.

A dozen groups with 300 members operate in the Twin Cities; in all, Vistage has 15,000 members in 16 countries. Membership in a Vistage group is by invitation only. No competitors or companies with customer-vendor relationships are allowed in the same group. Members should be willing to challenge others and be challenged by their peers. Members hold each other accountable for taking action on problems they bring to the group.

Joining a group entails time and financial commitments, Davis said. Groups have a day-long meeting each month, and Davis meets monthly with each member for individual coaching sessions of up to two hours. Membership in a CEO group costs $15,000 a year, and each member must host one of the monthly meetings each year.

Here's what some of the CEOs from the group Davis met with last week had to say about the experience.

Michael Martin, president of Carlson & Steward Refrigeration in Marshall, drives from southwest Minnesota for each meeting: "The knowledge that I get from Brian and from the people in this room helps me run my business instead of the business running me. I've doubled the size of my company in two years and that's all based on Vistage and the push that I've received from the people in this room."

Melanie Sullivan, CEO of St. Croix Orthopaedics in Oak Park Heights: "You can get to a higher level of thinking than if you were just sticking in your own peer groups. ... You complement that with your one-to-one coaching and then you can really grow exponentially as a leader."

Michael Lacey, founder and CEO of Digineer, an information technology and management consulting firm in Plymouth: "The one-to-one coaching is helpful, to help clarify your vision and purpose. The benefit of the group discussion is that you get people with as much or more experience as you offering insight, and sometimes helping you see around corners that you can't see around."

Geoff Roise, owner of Lindsay Windows, a residential window maker in North Mankato: "Every meeting I come away with something from a speaker or another member that allows me to look at a problem or an opportunity a little bit differently.''

The expert says: Jack Militello, management professor and director of the health care MBA program at the University of St. Thomas' Opus College of Business, said the real value a peer group like Vistage offers is giving executives a place to talk.

"Organizational structures don't allow people to talk to each other," Militello said. "I believe we need this human interaction. This gives people a safe place to talk to each other."

The challenge facilitators such as Davis face is recruiting members and balancing "expertise and interpretation," Militello said. Peer group members "want someone who will say, 'My experience tells me this,' rather than saying, 'This is how it is; let me tell you how to do this.'''

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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