Leo Bottary, Adjunct Professor in Strategic Communication at Seton Hall University and Vice President of the Peer Advantage initiative at Vistage Worldwide Inc., visited Prof. Moyers’ New Venture Lab on February, the 25th, to share his research on The Power of Peers. Starting March 22, his findings can be seen in a book by the same name which he co-authored along with Leon Shapiro.
[ChiBus]: Your work is primarily in Strategic Communication. How did the idea for Peer Advantage and the book come about?
[Leo Bottary]: It was an evolution. My first experience with peer groups was when I owned a public relations company. Meeting with agency Principals was a great learning experience for all of us, within the same PR industry but from different geographies. Secondly, I see executives learning from each other in class at Seton Hall University. I’m sure, even at Booth, students drive the ultimately edge in the quality of the education and team experience. At Vistage, I was curious about their peer group approach for CEOs from a diverse set of companies and industries. Very quickly they discover their common challenges and help each other resolve and share meaningful practices. Over time I realized that we did not have a clear message about how valuable this approach is. So we made sure to express the value proposition, as a horizon beyond just our company and include our competitors. It is still nascent in the business world though we see peer influence in every step of life.
[CB]: How is this different from a CEO seeking advice from her board members or VP’s?
[LB]: Quite often CEOs find it hard to express that, ‘I don’t know what we should do next’ to their senior staff. Also, the day to day usually takes up a lot of time for a CEO even though she plans a great deal on the vision and wants to work on it. So, taking the time once a month to step out of that and talk to people outside of the company, and industry, has huge value to gain a third person’s perspective on the challenges and learn new practices that might work for her context.
[CB]: I look around and see that happening to some extent at school already. Do you think people lose the trend somewhere along the road to CEO?
[LB]: I believe there have been a few changes for good in business schools lately, First, there is the focus on leadership and secondly much more focus on teamwork with its advantages and challenges . So, now there is a generation of MBA graduates who see merit in collaboration. But we, baby boomers, grew up in an environment where shielding your paper was right and individual accomplishments more rewarded. One of the other business schools, Stanford, published a study in 2013 which said two thirds of the CEOs are not seeking outside leadership advice however, would be open to it if it were made available. Of course, the prerequisite is that you cannot be an ego-maniac, should be open to ideas and see others’ perspective. Some CEOs even bring these learnings about collaboration to their organizations and make it a part of their culture.
[CB]: How do you avoid a peer organization from getting cliquey?
[LB]: Group think and Abilene’s paradox come to mind. I can see it playing out inside an organization where you have a strong culture and leadership dynamic. But when you’re in a peer group, it is liberated from those aspects. People tend to be fearless about challenging one another. They wouldn’t allow you to get out of that room that day without letting you hear what they wish to say. It is crucial that the group is built around trust and honesty and instilling the courage to act through accountability.
[CB]: When you start forming a peer group and define the skill set of the peers you would gain value from, how do you find peers to guide you on the unknown-unknowns?
[LB]: It starts with a group whose skillset will surely help you. Often times leaders realize that they are missing some pieces and conduct an empty chair exercise. Periodically identifying the specific skill set that the group still needs is very important. So, you still address those areas as known-unknowns.
Pushya is a second year, former People Editor at ChiBus.