Give and take Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Rick Schultz used to pay $35 an hour for mostly his own advice.

Earlier in his career, the president and CEO of Spectrum Surgical Instruments Corp. approached a speaker after a meeting and asked if he’d meet with him. He became Schultz’s mentor — but with a fee attached.

Schultz started searching for a pool of ideas that went deeper than a single mentor, and he landed on a question facing many leaders: Where can you get unbiased advice without the bill?

“Mentoring for a CEO, you either go to a lawyer or an accountant,” Schultz says. “But how do I talk to an accountant about my problems? He wants me to put up good numbers. The lawyer, he’s billing me. The banker wants to make sure I pay. There are CEO coaches, but that’s a billable thing.”

So Schultz looked for a true mentor instead of a paid consultant. And instead of one, he found a dozen. He joined Vistage, an international organization of CEOs, presidents and company owners that claims 14,000 members around the world.

“The CEOs have no vested interest in each other [other] than to help each other,” says Jim Mazzella, chair of the local Vistage International group. “They’re not going to benefit from their advice. It’s straight advice that you’d pay to get from an attorney.”

Mazzella facilitates monthly meetings with about a dozen CEOs and meets with each one individually just as frequently.

“The best practice here isn’t as much about finding a mentor as it is a whole system of a way of interacting one to one in a group setting so that you get the whole package of mentoring,” Mazzella says. “I’m selling them short if it’s just me and them, because the real power is all the membership together.”

Here’s how they create an open atmosphere of input and ideas in their mentoring group.

Building the base

The first step to building an open, honest group is bringing in open, honest members. The first trait Mazzella looks for when he interviews potential members for his Vistage group is the desire to learn. To uncover that, ask what books they read, what seminars they attend or how they’ve developed, both in business and personally.

Second, test whether they’ll be open to input they’ll get from the group.

“I’ll actually talk to them about their business,” he says. “If they identify an area where they are having an issue, I may give them some feedback and see how they react to it — are they defensive or willing to talk about it?”

And if they claim to be challenge-free, take note.

“If they tell me everything’s going great, that’s a big red flag,” Mazzella says. “That’s not true of any business. Even if you’re being successful, you have problems. They’re not open to feedback if that’s how they view the business.”

When discussing their business, you can also judge their goals for the future. This covers Mazzella’s third criteria, which is the CEO’s drive to improve his or her company.

The makeup of the existing members also determines who can join. To protect the cornerstone of confidentiality, competitors and vendors of other members shouldn’t be considered.

You may want to consider the size of their companies, too. In Vistage, CEOs are often roughly grouped according to their companies’ revenue. In Mazzella’s group, revenue ranges from $6 million to $85 million. Spectrum fits in with more than $25 million in annual revenue and about 85 employees. Leaders of companies with similar organizational structures and number of employees seem to encounter many of the same issues.

Beyond that, a CEO’s line of business shouldn’t be a factor when building a group of mentors.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re a paint maker, a plumber or a manufacturer of shelving,” Schultz says. “Dealing in business, the CEO issues are pretty much the same.”

To become a Vistage leader, Mazzella went through training that focused on facilitating group interaction and running one-on-one sessions. The organization looks for leaders with a wealth of business experience, and in his case, the organization got someone who has led a family business and started his own, staying involved in several boards along the way.

Once the group meets, it needs to work together to lay ground rules that will satisfy everyone’s needs and shape how the group will run. Use the first couple of meetings to draw this outline while you get to know each other.

“We create, as a group, a general framework under which we’re going to operate and interact,” Mazzella says. “Right at the top is obviously confidentiality, but respect, candidness, an openness to share.”

Establishing openness

Although many members may jump into the mentoring group ready to divulge all their issues, others may approach the environment with some hesitance. Encourage them to start small and pose questions that will draw out their problems. Ask what their greatest challenge is or what major decisions or opportunities they’ll face in the next six months.

Mazzella takes members’ temperature when he meets with them individually, asking them for the state of their business and their personal life on a scale of 1 to 10.

When issues come up individually, the facilitator should point the CEO toward a solution, whether that means encouraging them to bring their problems to the entire group or taking a smaller step.

“Part of my job is to connect the members,” Mazzella says. “Rick, for example, had some success in an area, and I know that this other member is struggling in that area. I might let them know that this is going on: ‘Why don’t you two talk?’”

To break the ice at the beginning of each meeting, take five minutes to go around the room and get updates on everyone, both in business and personally.

“I’ll say how things are going, if there’s anything big with my kids getting any academic awards or achievements of my wife,” Schultz says. “You’ll throw that out there, so it’s up to each member. There are no rules of engagement, [like] ‘Now it’s personal time to talk.’ It’s an open forum.”

Once you’re ready to bring a serious issue to the table for some advice, prepare like you would for any presentation. Mazzella’s Vistage group uses an issue preparation form that outlines the history of the problem, why it’s an issue, an ideal outcome, possible options and questions for the group.

“You frame in your issue, and it asks you a bunch of probing questions,” Schultz says. “Once you put your issue on paper, you’re 89 percent there. It even asks you, ‘What do you think the outcome is going to be?’ It’s like, ‘I bet we’re going to end up on one of these points.’”

But often, self-analysis of the problem isn’t enough to find the solution. While the outline helps you articulate your issue, your mentors may offer alternatives beyond your realm. Discussions reveal the benefits of the group setting: both the range and amount of input.

“We’ve had CEOs say I hate selling,” Schultz says. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do telemarketing?’ Another guy will say, ‘Why don’t you do mail marketing?’ Another guy may say, ‘Why don’t you just get out there and see if you can do it?’ Having a table full of those people [is] different than just having one mentor.” ;

Even if the perfect solution doesn’t come straight from another member, the open atmosphere may knock something loose in your mind.

“Sometimes interaction will produce a better answer than anyone around the room,” Mazzella says. “The opinions of the other people will get them out of the box a little bit.”

In the end, you must make your own decision, weighing the advice of your business peers against your personal insight to the situation.

“Once the CEO makes the decision, he can move forward with his eyes wide open with respect to what his alternatives were, what the potential pitfalls are and really be able to weigh the options with more info than we would have had otherwise,” Mazzella says.

To keep members on track and establish accountability, have them define their decision to the group and divide it into smaller action steps. That way, you can hold them accountable to achievable goals and ask them specific questions about their progress.

More than solutions

Your mentoring group shouldn’t solely serve as a problem-solver though. You should also adopt a classroom atmosphere to learn about new ideas and discuss opportunities. For example, eight of Mazzella’s 12 meetings a year are planned around an expert speaker who presents a topic for discussion.

Before scheduling guests, Mazzella surveys his group members to gauge their interest in various topics, ranging from work-life balance to financial management to search engine optimization.

In addition to the nationally recognized speakers from Vistage’s bank, he also invites local experts — a more feasible option for start-up groups that aren’t internationally backed. Even if local experts can’t make it to a meeting, encourage your group members to contact the expert if they need help in that certain area of expertise.

Schultz and other Vistage members often leave those meetings with pages full of notes and heads full of ideas. The facilitator should follow up with each member individually to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed or tempted to implement everything at once.

“Part of my job is to help them set some priorities and decide,” Mazzella says. “‘You took away a half-dozen things that you’d like to add. What is really the most important? What’s going to have the greatest impact?’”

Have them keep their notes from previous meetings or at least a list of ideas they’d like to eventually consider. As they knock priorities off that list, you can keep track of what to tackle next.

“A lot of the learning that takes place is osmosis,” Mazzella says. “Over time, this helps individual members. Now when they’re faced with an issue, they can just recall speaker information or another member’s issue.”

Also provide an opportunity for the members themselves to present information. About once a year, encourage everyone to conduct a business review, recapping the company’s progress through the past year and laying out its vision for the future. Some may just share trends and key indicators, and others may open all their financial details to the group. Besides just reminding members of the group’s confidentiality agreement, return financial papers to the respective speakers so no private information leaves the room.

Sometimes, mentors don’t need advice or even new ideas. They might already know what they need to do but lack the confidence to proceed.

“Very often, it’s just hearing other people say, ‘You’re on track. Do that. That’s the right thing. We agree,’” Mazzella says.

That affirmation means more among CEOs than it may if it were coming from your management team underneath you.

“A CEO needs those strokes,” Schultz says. “I don’t need acknowledgment by the employees, but I’ve just got to make sure that other people are saying this is a best practice.”

If done right, the mentoring process should equip leaders to consider every side of an issue each time they encounter one, not train them to automatically unload their problems on others and expect answers. That development aspect is key to any group mentoring.

“It’s not just one-to-one coaching. That’s a piece of it,” Mazzella says. “Then it’s the group interaction with a facilitator. They’re learning from each other, and they’re mentoring one another.”

How to reach: Vistage International, www.vistage.com; Spectrum Surgical Instruments Corp., (800) 444-5644 or
www.spectrumsurgical.com