David T. Brown - You don't have to be lonely Featured

7:01pm EDT February 29, 2012

David T. Brown, chair of the management committee, Much Shelist
It's lonely at the top. At some point or another, virtually every business leader has quietly muttered these words. And why not? When virtually everyone in your organization is looking to you for direction and inspiration, where do you turn for support and advice?

In some cases, an experienced board of directors can serve as an effective sounding board. You may also have former mentors and teachers to whom you can turn for professional guidance.

You may face a situation, however, when these advisers are unavailable. It may be inappropriate to seek out their advice or they may lack the necessary knowledge or training to provide you with assistance. Or, you may have spent so much time growing the business that you haven’t had an opportunity to build a parallel executive-support structure. In such cases, must you go it alone?

Not necessarily. A peer roundtable or similar group of like-minded individuals may be just the resource you need. Whether formal or informal, such organizations of fellow executives are often created to provide ongoing business and career guidance to their members. Some are started by individuals, while others are formed under the auspices of trade or industry associations. Many are part of larger umbrella groups such as the Young Presidents' Organization, the Entrepreneurs' Organization and Vistage International.

Peer roundtables provide a supportive environment that allows members to air professional issues as well as issues that can be more sensitive. Members can also frame and explore specific problems or concerns, improve communication and leadership skills and build networks of friends and professional connections. 

Virtually all effective peer round tables share certain characteristics that are essential for success.

Tap into experience

There is nothing like belonging to a small, closely knit group of peers who share your leadership challenges and can offer constructive advice and when needed, empathy. In many instances, roundtable members are all dealing with and addressing similar issues. However, some may have more experience than others and may be able to offer either their own tried-and-true solutions or an affirmation of your chosen approach to a problem.    

Set the ground rules

Whether in the form of written guidelines or a “gentlemen’s agreement,” any peer roundtable must establish and abide by rules that are clearly understood by all members. These can be as simple as showing up to meetings on time, taking turns developing an agenda or following established protocols for sharing information. Whatever the case, members must consistently adhere to the group’s policies in order for the roundtable to be successful.

Respect confidentiality

Over a period of time, members of successful peer roundtables build a level of mutual trust that allows them to talk candidly about sensitive business issues. While it is never acceptable to divulge specific information about pricing, clients or other sensitive issues and confidentiality is preserved at all costs, it is an environment where you can safely discuss internal management issues that all senior executives face while knowing that the details you share will go no further than the group.  

Be involved

After the markets took a serious turn at the end of 2008, my own roundtable of midsize law firm leaders got together in January 2009 for an analysis of economic conditions and a look at what the future might hold for our firms and the legal industry overall. We openly shared with each other our recent experiences and even our fears about the future.  Then we got down to the business of helping each other develop both short- and long-term strategies for weathering the storm. It is fair to say that we leaned on each other more than usual during that period, and it was important that we felt comfortable talking openly with each other about the issues we faced. 

Joining or even creating your own roundtable that embodies these characteristics can help you navigate some of your most difficult professional challenges. Likewise, it can serve as a springboard into some of your greatest successes. In any case, you should never underestimate the power of peer insights. Despite the old saying, it doesn't have to be lonely at the top.

David T. Brown is chair of the management committee at Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist. He is an experienced business lawyer who serves the firm’s clients as a legal and business counselor in a wide range of matters. Brown can be reached at (312) 521-2754 or dbrown@muchshelist.com